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The story of how ‘gavman’ came to Wabag

Jim Taylor and Michael Leahy
Early highlands explorers Jim Taylor and Michael Leahy


PORT MORESBY - The colonial Administration utterly failed to understand why native people in the vicinity of Wabag patrol post vehemently opposed the government establishing contact with them.

Colonial kiaps described the native people as the “most difficult to be found anywhere” for continuing to oppose them after a base was established in Wabag during the Hagen-Sepik patrol of 1938.

And it happened again when Captain John Clarke, who had opened a patrol post in 1941 which closed when war came, was posted back to Wabag in 1943.

Clarke rediscovered the opposition and resentment amongst the local people, who attacked police posts he established to maintain government influence.

The Wabag people didn’t want the ‘government’ to settle in their areas.

One reason for this was to avoid the uneven fights they had witnessed at Wakumale and Kopen in which their young men were killed by police rifle fire against which their wooden shields, spears and bows and arrows were ineffectual.

And they still remembered the 1934 massacre at Tole village, a one-sided affair in which 15 people were killed and an equal number injured by Michael Leahy who first shot a man named Pingeta who attacked the exploration party with spears.

This had occurred four years before James Taylor and John Black built a base camp and an airstrip in Wabag in March 1938.

After they left in August, there was a clash between police from the Wabag base camp and Wakumale warriors. There were also other police shootings in the Kopen and Kamas areas west of Wabag.

In the same month, the colonial government directed Ian FC Downs and other kiaps to investigate the police shootings, maintain regular patrols, pay compensation, maintain peace and gain the confidence of the people of Wabag.

It did not seem to work. The people did not want the government to establish itself among them. And it seems the Administration failed to find out why the people behaved that way.

Were the people sincere in accepting the compensation payments for police shootings or did they still fear intimidation and harassment from the poorly trained police?

The people were aware that the Administration had done nothing about the earlier Tole killings, where 20 men and women had been left dead including five killed by the retreating Leahy brothers.

Unusually in New Guinea, the Enga people spoke just one language and the news of the mass killings spread fast warning people to be careful when long lines of strange people appeared on the horizon.

In a report compiled by Clarke covering the 12 months between September 1943 and September 1944, he noted that the people still mistrusted the government.

Clarke reported that two of the five police posts he established in the Wabag sub-district had been attacked. He suspected poorly trained police were part of the problem. He discovered some had interfered with local women.

He also regretted there wasn’t a court to deal with these poorly trained police, most of whom were recruits straight from the depot or special police with little or no training whatsoever.

“Lack of reliable and experienced police caused much perturbation at times and a certain amount of difficulty in administrating the district,” Clarke wrote. “Some trouble has been experienced with police interfering with the local females.”

He hoped that a properly constituted court would function in the district whereby convicted officers would receive a sentence commensurate with their crimes.

But there were also reliable constables, notable among these 3262 Remi and 3272 Patut, both of whom were recommended for promotion.

“Much credit is due to these native constables for the splendid aid they have given in bringing portions of the area under partial control,” Clarke wrote.

But Clarke found that he had made a mistake to deploy native policeman at the five different posts he established, thus weakening the strength of his force.

Lives could have been lost when two police posts were attacked - one at Lake Ivai-a (Sirunki) in July and the other at Birip a week or so before he wrote a report on 28 September 1944.

Clarke was pleased, however, that in both cases, the police were saved from death and injury by the loyalty of the people living near the police post, who came to their aid and helped disperse the attackers.

“In both cases the assaults were made to rid the area of the ‘government’ whose presence in some quarters is still highly resented,” he said in his report.

As early as 1939, patrols had noticed the resentment people felt towards the government which Clarke again expressed.

“Captain Clarke’s lack of experience among uncontrolled natives has undoubtably has not made his task any easier, but it is through no fault of his that the native situation in this sub district is not better than it is,” said a report of 18 October 1944 sent from Mt Hagen to the ANGAU Northern Region headquarters in Lae.

Airstrip at old Wabag town (Gwenda Jackson)
The original airstrip at old Wabag town (Gwenda Jackson)

“There appears little doubt that the unsatisfactory position today dates back to the early associations of European influences with these people and until prejudices are broken down and confidences in us restored, little progress can be expected.”

The ‘early associations of European influences’ pointed to the Leahy brothers and the killings at Tole on that first occasion when two different cultures had come face to face.

A question people ask about the killing is why Michael Leahy did not fire a warning shot over Pingeta’s head to demonstrate fire power he possessed?

A warning shot would have been enough to scare people who had never seen a whiteman with guns before. They would have scattered in total fear at the first crack of rifle fire.

Yet Leahy decided to shoot Pingeta and the armed police joined in what appears to have been a shooting spree.

And as the group retreated to Mt Hagen, five more people were shot dead, probably relatives of the 15 people killed at Tole the previous day.

In a land where ‘tooth for tooth, eye for eye’ was in the blood, from that moment the relatives could not just sit and watch the patrol pass by. They felt obliged to take revenge. But they were powerless against the ‘muskets’ the whiteman and police carried.

It was a resentment that prevailed down the years. The people could never rest easily until the killings were avenged, even if they died attempting it. It was a tribal obligation.

People always planned to take revenge for relatives killed in tribal warfare.

Thadius Kaka Menge said the men killed were not just from Tole village but also from other Wabag tribes.

They had gone to Tole curious to have a glimpse of the strange people and to barter for trade goods with the food and firewood they took along.

Thadius said he and Pupukain had gone to Tole that morning with firewood. They didn’t climb the steep hill with bows and arrows to attack the strange people camped at the top.

After the massacre, the colonial administration failed to undertake a thorough investigation. This lack of response undoubtedly further hindered later attempts to establish meaningful contact with the people in the district.

It did not take long for the people to realise that the government had too much power – and that they were there to stay. The people had to accept change or be left behind.

So a new era began for them with regular patrols. Wabag became a permanent centre of influence, tied by 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’. Adventurous young Engans travelled to 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.

The District Officer from Mt Hagen visited Captain Clarke in January 1944 and gave him instructions to put into operation a works program in which people were to be engaged.

Clarke went to work immediately and a new government station was erected near the old campsite of the Hagen-Sepik patrol. Most of the buildings, all made from bush materials, were completed between February and April.

The construction of the Wabag aerodrome was started but, although not fully complete, it was able to serve as an emergency landing strip for allied aircraft in distress. It was 1.2 kilometers long and yards long and 48 meters wide with an uneven grade. But from the eastern end there was an excellent approach.

In July 1944, an allied Beechcraft plane landed on the airstrip for the first time.

Roads were constructed around the small station but the biggest project was the construction of a road from Wabag to Tomba near Mt Hagen, 50 km by air and 70 km by road.

From Mt Hagen, Captain Clarke obtained a boar with a good percentage of the Berkshire breed to start a pig-farm in Wabag.

“The local sows who were mated with this boar threw some fairly good-looking stock, but a virulent type of ‘swine fever’ passed through the district a few months back killing off about 80% of pigs in the area,” he wrote.

“This swine fever has robbed the native of his wealth and main source of meat supply.”

From 1945 onwards, civil administration replaced ANGAU. Wabag, Wapenamanda and Laiagam became focal points for patrol posts and police camps as patrol activity spread through Enga country.

From 1947, as each new area was opened to Europeans, more intensive 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 Clarke, Mick Foley, WJ Wearne, David Marsh, Denis 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 varying rank - luluais, tultuls and bosbois - and the first interpreters, trainee police and trainee health workers like Tei Abal were appointed.

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

He said the kiaps felt that Nemane Sarut 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, they assisted with census patrols and persuaded the people to build roads, bridges, rest houses and pit latrines.

At the time, the Kii fought with the Kala as well as with other neighbouring tribes in Wabag but, when the kiaps told them to stop fighting, they stopped immediately.

“We destroyed our shields, bows and arrows and lived in relative peace,” Thadius said. Popular among the local leaders were Kepa, Maua, Kipongi, Katapene, Nepo and Kurai.

It is possible Kurai Tapus and some of these other men were appointed ‘bosbois’ by Clarke to help him in his work.

“Native chieftains have been appointed ‘boss boys’ throughout the area which is partially under control,” he wrote in a 1944 report.

“The ‘boss boys’, who form a very necessary and vital link in the administration of the district have been given an insignia similar to those in use in the Chimbu district, after satisfactorily serving a probation period.

“Two of the boss boys so appointed have abused their powers and caused trouble but others have done a good job in assisting to bring their subjects under control.”

Thadius with some of his children and grandchildren
Old Thadius with some of his children and grandchildren

Kurai Tapus was a very tall man. Many describe him as being well over two meters tall, and appeared much taller when dressed up with a bird of paradise headdress.

Captain Clarke noticed that the average height of the people especially native males was 160 centimeters but the chieftains were bigger in stature and taller in height averaging at 175 centimeters.

He said the people were mostly chocolate brown in colour but a few were seen with light skin colour.

“All males sleep together with the females occupying another house nearby,” he said. “All intercourse between married couples is carried out during daylight in some remote spot in the bush.”

Houses were divided into three compartments. The first was used for cooking and eating meals and for the entertainment of visitors. The middle compartment provided shelter for the pigs and the end section was the sleeping area.

“The natives are polygamous, wealth and the consent of the first wife being the only factors which count in obtaining more than one spouse,” Clarke wrote. “A small proportion of the indigenous population is semi nomadic in as much as they are constantly seeking new ground for cultivation.”

As he stated, polygamy was practised. Pigs provided the main purchasing power for brides. These were handed over to the bride’s parents and relatives. Five days was the recognised period for the honeymoon, both parties during this time being excused from general duties.

Clarke wrote that the natives showed a definite socialistic trend for, should a prospective bridegroom did not possess sufficient wealth to purchase the lady of his choice, his relatives and friends would immediately make up the deficiency.

Apart from marriages, tee exchanges and fighting, singsings or mali formed a predominate part of life. Organised group singsings were a regular occurrence and great preparations were made for these events which at times lasted weeks.

A ‘courting’ singsing known as lagumana was very popular with the younger set. It was a common sight to see native carriers stop on the track for a breather and to immediately form up in line and conduct a short singsing.

Thadius said many of the men appointed as ‘bosbois’ married multiple wives. He himself married 12. Kipongi married 28 while Kurai married eight and all of them fathered many children.

Kurai’s second wife, who he recognised as his first wife, was Pingeta’s daughter - the village chief who had been killed at Tole in 1934 by the Leahy brothers.

And Kurai’s last and eighth wife, Kipaukwan, still lives today after Kurai died in 1980.


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Arthur Williams

Well done Daniel. A good historical tale for future Engans about part of their province.

Always wondered why this single province is unique in PNG with it having only one language. What’s reason for that?

Chris Overland

A great piece of work Daniel.

History from the bottom up provides important new perspectives on events previously only recorded by those at the top.

The latter are always self serving to some degree, so other voices help restore and maintain a balanced perspective (if there is such a thing).

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