Esigu: Policeman, Leader, Governor
Covid PNG: Unprepared & understated

There’s no escape from our changing world


NORTHUMBRIA, UK - It does no good to pretend that late 19th and early 20th century Papua New Guinea with its stone based technology and scattered and perpetually warring tribes could have lain forever undisturbed by the relentless impetus of the world.

Any discussion of Australia’s presence in PNG should not begin with whether it had any right to be there, but with what might have happened if a potentially harsher Japanese or Indonesian administration had taken over the country before it became independent.

It was inevitable that, rightly or wrongly, a technologically enhanced and more powerful nation state would have taken over PNG in some form. That is a fact.

Much as they may dislike aspects of the Australian Administration’s legacy, Papua New Guineans could not, even with the advantage of hindsight, have escaped global advance by hiding indefinitely.

A culture backed by superior modern skills would, as surely as night follows day, have imposed itself on them.

That it happened to be Australia, which in colonial terms arrived late is incidental.

It was also fortunate that the Australian Administration was largely benign and prepared to spend more money on PNG than it ever extracted.

It should also be accepted that European style colonialism, the cultural and capitalist phenomenon which began in Europe in the fourteenth century when trading ships began to find treasures in other parts of the world will prove to be only the first of many worldwide economic and cultural disturbances - the vanguard of what is now termed globalisation.

History may also show that the occupancy form of transferred dominance, or colonialism, directed by Caucasian managed economies ended when PNG became independent.

Even in the 1930s when a handful of kiaps armed only with rifles made first contact with a million people living in the previously unknown valleys of the Highlands, this imposed administration directed from Canberra through Port Moresby was seen elsewhere in the world as a political anachronism.

Australia’s late place in this centuries-long process will no doubt continue to be criticised but my view is that Australia, its kiaps and other civil servants were bit players in a process that opened the way for Papua New Guineans to take their place within the world economy, joining the rest of humanity in the global acceleration and cultural evolution that was the dominant feature of the 20th Century – and which continues to pick up speed at an even greater rate today.

No criticism of Australia, or PNG’s people, is implied because no one, especially villagers whose first international contact began in the 1930s, can say – “Stop the world I want to get off”, even though there will have been times when every human in history, including individual readers of PNG Attitude, would have liked to have slowed the clock hoping for calmer, more predictable, social and economic waters.

Keeping pace with almost daily advancements in the global process becomes quite dizzying, doesn’t it?


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Those drifters, dreamer and beachcombers, like James Norman Hall, who were floating around the South Pacific between the wars produced a wonderful body of literature well worth reading today.

Frederick O’Brien’s ‘Atolls of the Sun, ‘White Shadows in the South Seas,’ ‘Mystic Isles of the South Seas’ and ‘My Island Home’ are wonderful and so are the books by Louis Becke, including ‘By Reef and Palm’ and ‘The Ebbing of the Tide’.

After WW2 came Charles Barret’s ‘Isles of the Sun’, Judy Tudor’s ‘Many a Green Isle’, ‘Where the Trade Winds Blow (with RW Robson).

The collected stories edited by A Grove Day and Carl Stroven contains contributions from many others, including James A Michener of ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ fame and upon which the musical and film called ‘South Pacific’ evolved and inspired so many people.

Mustn’t forget George Farwell either with his ‘Rejoice in Freedom’ and, of course, EJ Banfields’ ‘Confessions of a Beachcomber’ and Bengt Danielsson’s many contributions, including ‘Love in the South Seas’. There are many others of course that I haven’t been able to lay my hands on yet.

As for the current state of Papua New Guinea maybe it’s time we apologist’s followed your example Arthur and told it like it is, i.e., the politicians, the elite, the grifters and carpetbaggers and the criminals, thugs and thieves, the exploiters and the rank incompetent have reduced it to a miserable basket case.

Thank goodness there are a few patches here and there where the old PNG somehow survives.

Arthur Williams

I make no excuse for repeating a quote I like from the American writer James Norman Hall, who was not only in the British army but also served in both the French and USA air forces.

Hall is better remembered as co-writer of Mutiny on the Bounty: "After spending several months on a schooner wandering the remote Tuamotu islands of French Polynesia, he came across another ship anchored in a small atoll whose captain gave him a pile of recent newspapers from Tahiti. Hall read the papers that evening, then wrote in his notebook:

" 'I heard as in a dream the far-off clamour of the outside world .... but there was no reality, no allurement in the sound. I saw men carrying trivial burdens with an air of immense effort, of grotesque self-importance; scurrying in breathless haste on useless errands, gorging food without relish; sleeping without refreshment; taking their leisure without enjoyment; living without the knowledge of content; dying without ever having lived' "

I first learnt of Papua as a high school stamp collector and through the pages of National Geographic with photographs of bare-breasted islanders.

Just as I began my two year stint in The Guards along came ‘South Pacific’ in glorious all round sound and Todd-AO or Cinemascope that I enjoyed on a weekend pass.

I was in the late teenage mode of rebellion with thoughts of adventure as an alternative to what seemed like an inevitable 49 years of being in a secure, pensionable grind of a bank clerk.

I had thought of The Foreign Legion from my first viewing of ‘Beau Geste’ or working in an opposite climate for The Royal Canadian Mounted Police - The Mounties.

Sadly I made no such move and returned to my clerical career whose top brass said if I passed my Banking Exams I could be on a salary of about £1,200 at age 31, an incentive for many.

Any plans were ditched by the arrow of Cupid that took me from being a virgin soldier to a married dad within two years of 'stepping off', then the term for ending your military years.

Luckily Miss Right was also not one to conform to British 1960s normality and we saw our dreams could be achieved for a tenner when took our family south to a Western Australian wheat belt school.

Sadly I became a failure in education precipitated by not being able to teach my Years 10-12 pupils the assigned subjects of Commerce and Accounts.

Out of the deep blue came a chance of escaping those farmers' kids, a chance to live and work in the South Pacific and my wife was apparently happy to follow where I led.

I will never forget standing one beautiful early morning aboard the MV Theresa May as we breasted the waves of the Pacific in the narrow channel between Nango and Nusa islands.

From that position, Lavongai, or New Hanover as the Germans had named it, was a dark almost intimidating image on the north west horizon.

Having had two momentous journeys in the past 12 months I never told my young wife that seeing that spectre take form and colour as we ploughed through the waves, I had a premonition that it would be my home for far more years than my contracted six as a kiap.

Imagination became fact and I spent 30 years in PNG.

Despite the marital and health problems I encountered, I still believe it was a unique privilege to be in PNG at one of the few remaining moments in the twentieth century where anyone could be part of the birth of a nation.

Mind you, when training in Sydney at ASOPA in 1970, we had been told that our role was as putative parents to continue serving as our predecessors but always aware we should strive to make ourselves redundant as we partnered local people towards managing their own destiny as an independent nation.

In my short time working for Australia in PNG, I believe most Kavieng Club folk and kiaps were fearful of the sudden changes that were happening around them.

Yet at Tsoi Island on 1 December 1973 came the major penultimate colonial event of self-government which I, by now divorced, celebrated at a feast of a wild buffalo culled from a dwindling herd on Selapiu Island.

That rundown commercial enterprise was a foretaste of what would happen over the next 10 years as the giant empires of Burns Philp and the New Guinea Company abruptly divested themselves of their plantations.

Twenty two months later came Independence on 16 September which I celebrated with hundreds of people in Lavongai village.

By then I was working as manager of three plantations owned by the Catholic Mission. One of my roles was supervising over 100 cattle, so for the Independence Day feast the Mission had authorised my killing nine of the beasts.

Ever protein hungry Lavongai clan leaders cunningly advised me to kill them a few days early to allow proper pit oven baking of the large quantities of meat.

Interestingly on I-Day I saw many families unwrapping their mumu but I did not see one piece of beef. I felt at least lucky to share a chicken mumu with Father Miller.

Of political note was that there were no great rejoicing by people who a mere 10 years before had been imprisoned as tax defaulters - some several times and treated poorly as unpaid labour on infrastructure projects such as the Tingwon airfield or Kavieng sea wall.

The old flag came down and up went the new national emblem accompanied by speeches but the main focus was the many singsing groups who entertained us for hours.

Today as part of an independent nation, Lavongai has drifted almost unnoticed by the elites of Waigani for 45 years.

Its long disused three airstrips now overgrown; aid posts closed; the United Church nurse training centre at Ranmalek long gone; no permanent doctor at Taskul Hospital; the two concrete wharves at Meterankang and even Taskul slowly subsidng into the ocean.

The first sections of the island ring road has not been expanded and never will be says the current governor. The issue of three illegal SABLs on the island - ostensibly for agro-commercial projects on 99 years leases at no rent but which have allowed some of the worst horrors of clear felling by the usual industry spivs.

To facilitate the removal of logs, the provincial government has funded a cross-island road that connects to no spur roads only the muddy ridgetop hugging tracks of their ancestors.

This means that without marine capabilities the Kavieng police can never respond properly to the recent 100 murders, arson and thousands of families chased off their ancestral lands to become squatters in neighbouring Tigak islands or in Kavieng.

My extended family were included in that mayhem.

If it were resource rich Southern Highlands or Enga provinces where such horrors were happening there would be army call outs.

I'm very sorry for what was my home for 30 years. The islanders face a frightening future. The governor says the clan criminals can end the reign of terror by agreeing not to investigate the vicious crimes. But the result would be long term resentment leading to further acts of criminality.

The 1960s saw almost two thirds of Lavongai shout, “Mipela no laikim Australia!” and/or “Mipela laikim America!”

Their declared policy of land held in common (as it had always been in their traditional land tenure system) was viewed by absent experts in high places as a foretaste of Communism and a threat to Western Pacific security,

It was apparently harshly put down but in I-Day 1975 many of those labelled cultists for supporting the grass roots movement were still alive and even in 2007/08, when last I lived among my wife’s people, I met some of great age but who were still fighting to improve life on their island home.

Seeing what has happened to their island, I cannot claim Independence changed these peoples' lives for the better.

Lavongai had seemed a dark image on the horizon as I first sailed there and life there today seems to be darkness still.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Not at $100+ for 200 odd pages Peter.

Peter Sandery

Might I recommend to you and others who pontificate upon this subject, the late Deepak Lal's book entitled "In Praise of Empires Globalization and Order" an in depth study of the subject that does not just include Western Imperialism.

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