WABAG – The field party of the Akmana Gold Prospecting Company were the first Europeans to set foot in what is now Enga Province.
The Akmana prospectors, trekking south from the Sepik, had penetrated the Maramuni area and into the Wabag district four years before the ill-fated Leahy brothers’ expedition of 1934.
Michael Leahy’s diary stated that 15 tribespeople were killed and an equal number injured in a bloody encounter at Tole village and five more were killed as the Leahy party retreated back to Mt Hagen.
There were two Akmana expeditions – the first from September to December 1929 and the second from mid-February to the end of June 1930.
The Leahy brothers had entered the Eastern Highlands in 1933 and made their way west through Simbu, Western Highlands, Southern Highlands and Wabag a year later.
The two prospecting parties took starkly different approaches in establishing peace with the local Enga people whose land they intruded upon in the search for gold.
The Akmana field party contacted many people they called variously grass country people, head hunters, pygmies, wigmen, kanakas and poomani.
These contacts were often made with the help of Drybow (Dribu), a leader and spokesman of the wigmen, an intelligent man of goodwill with a quiet authority that brought with it cooperation.
So the Akmana expedition made a peaceful entry into this new country, establishing a reputation for fair trade and decent behavior.
However gold was their real interest and they traced the rivers and tributaries as far as practicable but their efforts found nothing worthwhile.
The ‘wigmen’ were in fact Enga people who lived west in Laiagam and Porgera, south in Kandep and east towards Kompiam and Wapenamanda. They all spoke one language.
“These people did not know salt,” Shepherd noted, “and the big pack we carried in was useless for trade.
“They did not have betel nut and their teeth were ivory white although they smoked tobacco.
“Small shells were good trade in buying the plentiful good quality sweet potato (ina) but carpenter’s plane blades of two inches were most sought after as were long knives and tomahawks, and full-size steel axes were revered.
“The Arkmana junction district people were the ‘Emigata’ on the west side of the river around Akmana Palisade main base and the Poomani tribe on the east side of the Baiyer (today called the Maramuni) and along the Tarua.
“They all had a similar dialect and apparel.”
[Recollections of Ernie Shepherd from a manuscript in the possession of the E A Shepherd Collection, Sydney]
During its first expedition, the Akmana group prospected the tributaries of the Arrabundio River.
It then trekked across a spur of the central mountain range to sample the Upper Karrawaddi River.
Retracing its steps to the Arrabundio, the team crossed another spur of the central mountain range to the junction of the Yuat River with the Jimi and Baiyer Rivers, again without finding gold in sufficient quantity.
The account of the expedition reaching the junction of the Yuat and the Baiyer rivers is certainly wrong. It was not the Baiyer but the Maramuni river.
The Melpa speaking people of the Western Highlands spoke of the river ‘Poiya, which was recorded as Baiyer, perhaps resulting in a confusion with the other ‘Baiyer’.
The expedition returned to Madang at the end of December 1929, several of the party returning to Sydney to obtain instructions from the Akmana Gold Prospecting Company.
After leading the first expedition, Sam Freeman did not return to PNG and Reg Beazley became party leader of the second expedition, with mining engineer Pontey Seale, prospectors and recruiters Bill MacGregor and Beazley, and Ernie Shepherd in charge of transport and supplies, prospecting when opportunity arose.
In mid-February 1930, the second expedition returned to the mountains and prospected south along the Baiyer River to its junction with the Maramuni and Tarua Rivers, where they established a palisaded forward camp naming the place ‘Akmana Junction.’
From this base they prospected along the Maramuni River and its tributaries, again without success.
Finally, they followed the Tarua River south past the tributary which flows to Waipai, again without success and, on the advice of mining engineer Seale, it was decided there was nothing to justify further exploration.
The party returned to Madang, sailing for Sydney on 3 July 1930.
Members of the party donated the wigs they had collected to various museums, two (from Beazley and Shepherd) donated to the Australian Museum in Sydney.
Records at the Australian Museum show that Beazley’s wig (described as “a cap composed of human hair from the headwaters of the U–at River, Central Mountains, Mandated Territory of NG”) was lodged on 31 January 1930, presumably on his quick visit to Sydney after the first expedition.
Seale presented two wigs to the National Museum Canberra in 1930 and Shepherd gave another wig to Father Kirschbaum to send to Germany.
The wigs at the Australian Museum were later confused with some brought out of the Highlands 10 years later by Jim Taylor during his Hagen–Sepik patrol, and wrongly attributed to him when put on display.
The introduction to an article published in the April 1971 issue of Pacific Islands Monthly states: “The Akmana expeditions did not penetrate the great valleys which were later discovered by the Leahys and Taylor, whose glory remains undiminished. But they were apparently the first to contact the Highlands wig men and bring back wigs. And Seale’s photographs are historic.”
That was true. Akmana had been first but the Leahy brothers and James Taylor did explore vast tracts of previously unknown fertile land the Highlands region where a million enterprising people lived.
As for the Leahy brothers, their efforts were marred by the massacre at Tole village in Wabag.