Errol Flynn - the Rabaul years
Keep Your Heaven

The tragic history of Goaribari Island

Kerewa longhouse, Goaribari Island, 1923  (Frank Hurley)
Kerewa longhouses,  Goaribari Island,  1923 (Frank Hurley)


ADELAIDE - Daniel Kumbon’s recent article on the work of early missionaries in Papua New Guinea triggered some memories for me, especially in relation to Goaribari Island.

By a strange quirk of fate I met a man who witnessed the events of 8 April 1901 when the Reverends James Chalmers and Oliver Tomkins, together with 12 colleagues, were murdered and then eaten by the people living on Goaribari Island.

Before I describe my meeting with this witness, it is worth looking at the history of what was, during a subsequent Royal Commission, described as “the affray at Goaribari Island”.

In 1901 most of what was then the British Protectorate of Papua was unexplored by Europeans.

There had been significant contact in and around Port Moresby, but the hinterland remained off limits to other than a few intrepid administration officials, mining prospectors and missionaries.

Goaribari mapGoaribari Island lies far to the west of Port Moresby, being located in the tidal delta of the Gulf of Papua, roughly midway between the mouths of the Omati and Kikori Rivers. It was and remains only accessible by boat.

Missionaries like Chalmers were determined to bring the word of their God to the Papuan people and were prepared to take serious risks to do so.

Dying in the service of their God, while not necessarily desired, was regarded as a noble act of martyrdom which would bring eternal credit of the martyr’s soul upon arrival in Heaven.

So it was that on 8 April 1901 Chalmers’ party landed at Goaribari Island and were invited to attend a feast in the Men’s House (called a Dubu in Motu).

Unhappily, they turned out to be the main course and were treacherously and cruelly murdered by their hosts. Their skulls were subsequently displayed in the Dubu as trophies of that event.

Word soon filtered back to Port Moresby about the killings. The then Lieutenant Governor of Papua, Sir George Le Hunte, swiftly mounted a retaliatory expedition to punish the islanders.

Le Hunte, together with a large force of police duly descended upon the island one morning and slaughtered every man they saw, killing a total of 24 in all.

They then burned every Dubu on the island, being 10 in number, before departing for Port Moresby.

Such violent retaliation may seem excessive to us these days but was clearly regarded as proportionate at the time. Also, it was plainly consistent with the Papua New Guinea tradition of payback and would have been understood as such by the islanders.

Le Hunte’s actions should have been the end of the matter and, indeed, there it rested for two years when events took another fateful and lethal turn.

In June 1903, the Australian government had taken over control of Papua on behalf of the British government. This had always been the intention from the moment the reluctant British government had annexed Papua, mainly in order to prevent the further expansion of the German Empire into the Pacific.

On 9 June 1903, a 32 year old called Christopher Robinson was appointed as Acting Administrator.

I have been unable to ascertain exactly what Robinson’s qualifications and experience were for this demanding role but colleagues described him as showing little sympathy towards the indigenous population.

A contemporary rather unkindly described him as a “blithering idiot” and his subsequent actions seem to add weight to this description.

Perhaps the kindest way to think about him is that he was inexperienced, lacked good judgement and had been promoted far beyond his level of competence.

In any event, in March 1903 Robinson, in company with Police Commandant W C Bruce and a contingent of Papuan Constabulary, set off for Goaribari Island in the administration steamer called, somewhat paradoxically given what transpired, Merrie England.

The apparent aim was to capture the remaining murderers of Chalmers et al in order to bring them to trial.

At this point, it is worth considering the weapons they took with them on their journey.

Merrie England was 147 feet long and weighed about 170 tons. It could make a steady nine knots under steam power, so was quite fast by the standards of the day.

The vessel mounted a multi-barrel Nordenfelt quick firing gun, which was a precursor to the modern machine gun. Operated efficiently it could fire hundreds of rounds a minute of a heavy calibre (25mm) bullet.

To put such bullets in perspective, the USA’s Army’s most potent modern heavy machine guns fire bullets that are only marginally larger at 30mm diameter.

I think that the word bullet is an inadequate description for ammunition of this size. It is better to think of it as a small artillery shell, with a corresponding capacity to inflict enormous damage upon anything it strikes.

The constabulary were armed with Martini Henry carbines, firing a .577 calibre bullet. These weapons had an effective range of about 370 metres, but were still lethal at up to 1,000 metres. In the hands of a competent rifleman, several aimed shots could be fired in a minute.

The bullet used in these guns was made of lead and weighed around 30 grams. I have fired one of these weapons and, believe me, you would not wish to be hit by one of them at any range, let alone close range.

Their hitting power was sufficient to at least highly discourage if not stop a charging rhinoceros or elephant.

Thus equipped, Robinson and his colleagues duly arrived at Goaribari Island. Initially at least, the islanders greeted them with cautious offers of friendship. No doubt the last visit from Le Hunte remained firmly in their minds.

At first all went well but when the police seized one of the men identified as being a participant in the murder of Chalmers and his colleagues things went horribly wrong very fast.

Several islanders loosed off arrows towards Merrie England and pandemonium ensued. The police opened fire with all guns blazing, shooting indiscriminately into the assembled mass of islanders.

Commandant Bruce strove desperately to restore order as the police and Robinson himself frantically blazed away.

In the space of only a very short time, perhaps no more than 90 seconds, about 260 shots were fired, including many from the heavy calibre Nordenfelt gun.

At least eight islanders were killed outright and an indeterminate number were wounded. Some of the wounded must have subsequently died but Robinson and his men had long since departed so the true extent of the killing remains unknown.

Given the power of the weapons used and the number of shots fired it seems implausible to me that only eight deaths occurred. A wound caused by a Nordenfelt gun could easily remove a limb or blow a large hole in a person’s body. A Martini Henry rifle at close range would inflict very serious damage too.

Despite lacking any verifiable evidence, I think there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that Robinson (and possibly Le Hunte too) understated the casualties they inflicted, partly due to the well documented problem of accurately reporting events after the “fog of war” has descended upon those engaged in combat and partly in an effort to avoid criticism for using excessive force.

In any event, upon returning to Port Moresby, Robinson was confronted by almost unanimous condemnation for his ill conceived and disastrous expedition.

A subsequent Royal Commission was scathing in its assessment of his actions.

Depressed and suffering from malaria, Robinson committed suicide at Samarai (Milne Bay) in June 1904, thus bringing to a close a short and dreadful career as a colonial administrator.

This brings me to my own knowledge of this event which, I have to say, remained very scant until quite recently.

In 1970, I was stationed at Kikori in the Gulf Province, where I heard about these events for the first time. The information conveyed to me was very hazy, providing only the bare bones of the story.

So it was that, armed with incomplete and inaccurate information, I set off on patrol with the objective of visiting the Omati Base Camp, where the administration had established a large resettlement scheme.

The aim of the scheme was to create a haven for small scale agriculture and horticulture in the hilly but fertile country that surrounds the upper reaches of the Omati River.

On the way, I resolved to visit Goaribari Island.

Those who knew the island at that time may recall that the islanders tended to have distinctive facial features, enhanced by equally distinctive tattoos and piercings.

Kerewa village people 1923 (Frank Hurley)
Kerewa man grinding an adze, 1923 (Frank Hurley)

They looked more like the people from further west towards the Bamu River or even Daru in the Western Province. This made them fairly easy to recognise compared to people from, say, the area around Kikori or Baimuru or further east around Kerema.

I mention this only because they were, at that time at least, fairly distinctive in looks and, somehow, this seemed to fit with their reputation for ferocity in pre-colonial times. They also were superb canoe builders and this expertise was much respected by the local people.

Upon arrival at the village, I did the usual kiap inspection of things like gardens and toilets and made inquiries into the general well being of the people. As I recall nothing of great note required attention, so I settled into the “Haus Kiap” (visitors rest house) and chatted to the locals.

Inevitably, the story of Chalmers arose and one of the villagers mentioned that there was still one man alive who remembered the incident.

This immediately piqued my interest and I asked if I could talk to him. Someone set off towards a nearby house and soon a very elderly man tottered towards me before settling himself comfortably on a log under the shade of the Haus Kiap’s veranda.

He told me that he had been a small boy at the time that Chalmers was killed and so had taken no part in the murders. His role had been restricted to witnessing events from a position of safety and later consuming the leftovers from the subsequent feast.

He complained that, as a small boy, he was not entitled to the prime portions of the feast and was given a foot to gnaw upon. Irritatingly, he said, the foot had first to be removed from a sandshoe.

He also said he remembered that attacks by the white men that followed, although he apparently witnessed this from the safety of the bush, well away from the actual scene of the fighting.

I recall him saying that many were killed, including women and children but, unsurprisingly, he could not say how many.

To this day, I do not know whether or not he was merely pulling my leg about the foot and sandshoe, but I remain quite sure his account of the attacks was accurate.

I suppose I might well have been the last non-indigenous person to hear a firsthand account of the affray at Goaribari Island. The man who spoke to me was very old by the standards of the day, being over 70 years of age.

So that is my tenuous connection with the terrible events of 1901 and 1903 at Goaribari Island. It is a story I have told to my children but no-one else until now, mostly because I felt that there would be no great interest in it.

However, now that Daniel has raised the matter once again I thought that, while my story is historically insignificant, it does show that oral histories of events can reverberate down through the years in unexpected ways.

It is these histories that people like Daniel and Mathias Kin have been recording and they are certainly worth preserving.

My account of these events drew upon several sources, including the work of John Quinn, whose article ‘The Curious Case of Christopher Robinson’, was published by the PNGAA on 21 October 2018. John’s work provided a useful narrative framework for my account of Robinson’s actions and I commend it to readers.

In another example of how small a world it is that we live in, readers should know that John Quinn was my Assistant District Commissioner when, as a novice liklik kiap of no great promise, I arrived upon his doorstep in Kerema in 1969. I remember him as being kind to me and tolerant of my youthful failings. Thank you John.


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Arthur Williams

I reopened my Penguin #70, 1936 edition, of ‘Some Experiences of a New Guinea Resident Magistrate’ by Captain C A W Monckton FRGS, FZS, FRAI.

At pages 117-138 he writes about the events leading to Robinson’s felo-de-se, the first Australian Administrator of New Guinea.

The story as retold in Monckton’s 1920 book would certainly fit the later descriptive 1940s epithet of ‘snafu’.

Of the missionaries’ murderers we are told their swampy homeland was then considered one of the most dangerous places in New Guinea.

They had attacked the HMS Fly in 1845 and were left alone until 1892 & 1898 when Sir William MacGregor had survived visiting Cape Blackwood.

There were several persons mentioned in this book as crucial to the tale.

Monckton had little time for the Western District’s Resident Magistrate, Hon C G Murray, apparently appointed despite any district, divisional or training after short service as a clerk in the Government Secretary’s office.

His assistant, A H Jiear, was a sub-collector of Customs at Daru. He produced the first official report of what he heard had happened, including that his boss was absent up the Bamu River.

The Customs officer reports that the mission ship Niue was ransacked by tribesmen but somehow allowed to flee to Daru.

Murray reached Daru 17 days after the murders. There he was told that Kiwai leaders wanted to mount a war party in their huge canoes to enact payback for their 10 young men slaughtered with the missionaries. The RM was able to prevent this escalation.

Two days later SS Parua arrived from Thursday Island with 11 members of Royal Australian Artillery under Lt Brown.
Despite this Murray decided to go to Moresby for more police hoping to get them and return to Daru to collect the police from there before at long last going to the site of the deaths.

It was only on 2 May that the fleet including the government's Merrie England anchored over three miles out in the Gulf.

Three armed parties landed simultaneously and so the slaughter commenced. The government parties stayed overnight in two villages.

There is an eye-witness account from Kemere of Dubumuba who had been captured in the assaults. I like its typical informer’s disclaimer of ‘I was not present at the massacre of Chalmers' party.’

He provides a tribal account of what happened before and after the murders. He claims that Tomkins and Chalmers were knocked out by blows to their heads by stone clubs. He informs on who decapitated the two missos and the men who eventually were given the heads.

Of the participants, C G Murray left shortly after for South Africa to be succeeded as Resident Magistrate by his assistant, Jiear.

Sir George LeHunte left New Guinea after being appointed Governor of South Australia.

The Chief Justice Sir Francis Winter resigned.

And onto the stage of history came Christopher Robinson, a lawyer and now acting as Judge and Administrator.

The question occupying the minds of many expats and especially Robinson was: ‘How can we retrieve the heads, by now skulls, of the two missionaries’.

He decides to mount an expedition to do that. To help him he has a recently arrived Commandant of Police called Bruce plus Jewell the Administrator’s personal secretary, also a recent appointee of LeHunte, normally engaged in clerical duties.

Monckton writes that he wanted to join the expedition but claims Robinson told him to continue south on his authorised leave because, “You are worn out and need change and rest…”

So it was that in 1903, over two years since the Chalmers Massacre at Goaribari, Judge Robinson was able to entice some tribesmen on board with a plan to capture as many as possible.

This evolved into what must have been a noisy brutal tussle that caused wantoks in the canoes around the ship suddenly showering the ship with arrows.

From there the situation dissolved into chaos once the police opened fire on the bowmen.

Unlike John Quinn’s 2018 book about Robinson used by Chris Overland as a source, Monckton does not mention fatalities despite boasting by Kiwai policemen once they are back in Moresby perhaps to impress wantoks.

It would be natural he claims that they would have enjoyed the being offered the legal opportunity to extract payback for the ten deaths their tribe had experienced in the initial massacre.

The subsequent Royal Commission found evidence of a massacre (eight people) by Robinson’s force. Did they ignore the then customary punitive killings by whitemen on the death of an expat or was that not part of their remit possibly in an attempt to avoid any attempts to investigate the prior 1902 massacre by the British controlled administration?

Robinson was stood down and annoyingly Captain Barton who had been one of his juniors now became his boss.

The clamour by the London Missionary Society through its spokesman Charles Abel had led to demands in Australia for a Royal Commission which was set up and the continuing publicity was too much for Robinson.

In league tables LeHunte killed 23 or more, Robinson eight or less if Monckton is consulted. Who was the greater monster?

Martin Kaalund

There has been no mention of 'Sticks that Kill', a novel by Trevor Shearston, which dramatically encompasses aspects of the events.

'Too Many Spears', by Piney And Runcie, gives the story from the other side of the Torres Strait.

It presents itself to me as the most cinematic possibility, not a first contact but a first contempt.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I'd suggest that Hubert Murray would not have condoned the erection of a memorial to Christopher Robinson in Port Moresby given their opposing views on 'native' administration. Murray had to clean up Le Hunte and Robinson's mess after all. His appointment was a turning point in Papuan history and I doubt that he wanted any public reminders of what went on before.

The planters in Papua were deeply at odds with Hubert Murray and resented his enlightened approach and the way he kept them in check.

Perhaps the planters erected the memorial in Samarai to spite Murray.

It is curious that he allowed its erection there however. Or perhaps they did it without consulting him.

Chris Overland

Thank you Ross for pointing out my error about the place of death of Judge Christopher Robinson. It seems that the existence of his memorial at Samarai has, as you have noted, led to a common misconception that he died there. Certainly, the sources I read implied this. I should have been more diligent in my research.

Quite why the memorial is there I do not know.

Robinson's reported lack of sympathy for the indigenous population makes sense to me because his appointment as a judge was evidently endorsed by the Queensland government. At the time, that government was actively resisting attempts to end the infamous black birding of Pacific islanders to work in the cane fields.

It thus seems highly improbable to me that it would endorse someone with, for example, the sensibilities and attitudes of Sir John Hubert Murray who assumed the role of Lieutenant Governor in 1908. His sympathetic attitude towards the Papuans translated into the broad policy framework that all kiaps worked within right up to PNG's independence.

As a matter of curious coincidence, it seems that Sir Hubert Murray died in Samarai in 1940, yet there is no memorial to him there, at least that I know about. Given his status and longevity in office you do wonder why this might be the case.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The Planter's Association of Papua was based in Samarai, which was the second largest town in Papua in the 1930s. Perhaps that is why the monument is there. The expectation was probably that it would continue as a major town. It was, of course, destroyed in WW2 to prevent the Japanese using it and never recovered after that. It's death knell came when the district headquarters was moved to Alotau in 1968.

Ross Wilkinson

Whilst Papua was a British colony known as British New Guinea, it was funded by contributions from the Queensland, New South Wales and Victorian colonial governments.

Control of the administration including appointments to office rested with the Queensland government.

With Federation of Australia in 1901, England made a decision to hand legal responsibility for British New Guinea to Australia in 1903 but the respective Acts of Parliament were not passed until 1905 and enacted in 1906 when British New Guinea became formally known as the Australian Territory of Papua.

Christopher Stansfield Robinson was a young Queensalnd solicitor who had become popular and as a result of friendships in the Queensland government was appointed to the position of Chief Judicial Officer in the Le Hunte administration of British New Guinea.

Le Hunte had led a punitive expedition to Goaribari in 1902 as described but whilst killing a number of the villagers and burning the village, he did not recover the murderers of Chalmers or the missionaries bodies.

In 1903 he was appointed as Governor of South Australia and left Port Moresby.

As was the custom of the time, whenever the Lieutenant-Governor was absent or indisposed, the Colony's Chief Judicial Officer took over the role and this put Robinson into the position of acting/Lieutenant-Governor at this time.

From my readings of this affair, the London Missionary Society was putting pressure on the administration over the Chalmers murders and seeking the return of the missionaries' remains.

Robinson took it upon himself to seek their return and to apprehend any of the murderers still at large to ensure justice was seen to be done. The rest is as described up to the point of Robinson's suicide.

When word of his actions reached Australia, the Australian Government was concerned and commissioned a Judicial Inquiry with Judge Hubert Murray appointed to head the Inquiry.

When news of this action reached Robinson it is reasoned that he was beset with shame and walked out to the flagpole at Government House in Port Moresby and shot himself. His body was returned to Australia for burial.

28 years after his death the Planters Association of Papua decided to erect a monument to Robinson at Samarai. This has led to a belief that Samarai was were he committed suicide but this is not so.

However, I have not been able to locate any information as to why the Planters' Association decided to erect a monument to him and why it is at Samarai.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I visited Samarai in 1972 and took a photograph of the memorial to Christopher Robinson. The memorial was still there in 2016, a little faded and the chain fence a bit skewed.

The words on it are interesting, especially for people who believe that history is written by the victors. It reads:

"In Memory of Christopher Robinson able Governor upright Judge and honest man. Died 20 June 1904 aged 32 years. His aim was to make New Guinea a good country for White Men.

"This stone was here laid by the men of New Guinea in recognition of the life of a man who was as well-meaning as he was unfortunate, and as kindly as he was courageous.

"Life is mostly froth and bubble. Two things stand like stone, comfort in another's trouble, courage in your own."

Dave Ekins

A marvellous account written in your usual impeccable style, Chris.

I visited Goaribari Island a few times about 14 years ago and was intrigued by the ongoing shame that the villagers carried regarding the culinary activities of their ancestors.

They still commemorated a "Chalmers" day each year and ha a great desire to effect a reconciliation with Chalmers descendants.

The original Dopima village was relocated closer to the beach on the northern side of the island. The chip on their shoulders was apparently exacerbated by them being referred to as the "missionary eaters" by others when they revealed their origin.

The following is quoted from a letter I have that was photocopied in Daru around 2005. The original is still there somewhere.

EXTRACT OF LETTER FROM REV E B RILEY, dated Fly River, 22 February 1905:

"I have today received from the Government a skull which the natives of Dopima say is that of my late colleague, O F Tomkins. The Government officials fully believe that it is quite genuine.

"I shall be pleased if you will communicate with deceased's relatives and attain their wishes re its disposal, or give me instructions what to do with it. I would suggest burying it in the cemetery at Daru and not with that of Tamate, which is buried in the middle of the village."

EXTRACT OF LETTER FROM REV E B RILEY, dated Fly River, 23 February 1905:

"Since writing you yesterday I have learnt a few things which may be of interest to you and perhaps the readers of the 'Chronicle'.

"When I received the skull from the government I had my doubts as to its being that of Tomkins, for this reason. He was formerly reported to have been clubbed, but the skull is in no way fractured. There is not a bone damaged.

"Mr Jiear came up to the Mission house last night and I expressed my doubt to him. He then informed me that the Dopima natives say that Tomkins was not clubbed at all. Mr Jiear appears to have known for a long time that such was the case.

"He says that after Tamate was clubbed, Tomkins and the Kiwai boys set off as fast as they could run to get to the whale boat; whilst running he was shot with arrows in both chest and back. The natives say he was 'killed by the arrows behind'.

"After being shot he was caught and overpowered and afterwards despatched. After hearing this explanation and making an examination of the mouth I am inclined to think it is Tomkins' skull. I know he had a plate and few teeth in the top; these are wanting in the skull in the upper jaw the very place where he had the teeth."

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