The Sky Travellers by Bill Gammage, Melbourne University Press (1994). ISBN 9780522848274. 348 pages. Paperback $49.99
NORTHUMBRIA, UK - A re-examination of Professor Bill Gammage’s book, The Sky Travellers, published by Melbourne University Press in 1994, is timely.
It is especially relevant now given that many Papua New Guineans want to know more about their early colonial history and the attitudes of those who made it.
I read The Sky Travellers for the first time last week and I put it down thinking this was the most informative kiap era book I have come across so far.
Of particular interest was its emphasis on the civil service rift between senior Australian administrators, many of whom were unadulterated white supremacists, and field officers, who were considered pro-native and therefore labelled kanakamen.
This collision in administrative attitudes continued to stew within the kiap brotherhood during the 1940s and 1950s, and its disappearance must have been persistent because I could still catch whiffs of it in the period of my experience between 1968 and 1975.
And it was disappointing, although not surprising, to discover that during the post-war administrative turmoil it was the white supremacist pen pushers who won.
Most of them were expert paper shufflers, and masters of the damning footnote, while ‘pro-native’ protagonists like explorers Jim Taylor and John Black were excited by the people they saw.
Men like Taylor and Black loved the bush, and could not wait to get back out there.
It meant they could be easily outmanoeuvred not just because the administrators were senior in rank but because the kiaps’ hearts and minds were elsewhere.
As a result, despite conducting that demanding and successful 15-month first contact patrol across the Hagen-Sepik Divide, a feat that remains unique in PNG, their later careers suffered.
Black was deliberately steered away from Highland areas and Taylor was only able to return after accepting an unwarranted, and possibly spiteful, demotion.
Moreover their patrol reports were hidden in a ‘not important’ drawer, so their detailed first hand observations were not available to those on later patrols to potentially dangerous regions like Telefomin.
Was this the result of pre-occupation with post-World War II demands, culpable deskman failure to understand the patrol’s importance or vindictiveness?
For Bill Gammage, his research for and assembly of The Sky Travellers must have been a labour of love. It took him 30 years.
Gammage was at the University of Papua New Guinea for part of this time and was able to list more than 100 people as informants, many of whom had first-hand knowledge of the Hagen-Sepik patrol.
He does not pull punches. There is no flinching from the most obvious cost of first contact being the death of the most aggressive villagers through gunfire.
Nor does he brush aside the rape of some women or the theft (sometimes described as looting) of pigs and other food items.
The latter is perhaps not surprising because the patrol was immense. It is estimated that over 350 people were involved, including 38 policemen, a dozen cooks and somewhere in the region of 300 carriers – all of whom had to be protected, sheltered and fed.
No wonder it was viewed by some PNG administrators as unwieldy and many of the Papua New Guineans contacted as an invasion force.
Gammage unwaveringly examines the logistics of maintaining and disciplining this multitude of men in difficult, often hostile, country. His observations are always informative.
His assessments of Taylor and Black are also revealing too.
Taylor is revealed as a genuine explorer, a man who relished adventure and the challenge of successfully overcoming initial village resistance to later establish genuine relationships.
Taylor was most definitely a kanakaman and Gammage also underlines that he found it easy to recognise that, despite their lack of technical sophistication, Papua New Guineans were self-reliant, cultured and proud human beings with an admirably independent approach to life.
Indeed Taylor defined the native people as ‘yeomen’, a term used historically to describe unfettered, land owning, British villagers in Anglo-Saxon times.
They were definitely not individuals who had no claim to be considered special and therefore of no worth.
Black began the patrol with a foot in the white supremacist camp but his racial thinking softened relentlessly and he became a fully-fledged kanakaman.
Gammage attributes this conversion to ceaseless daily interaction with a range of Papua New Guineans across a number of challenging situations.
At no point is this made clearer than Black’s undisguised distress at having to abandon Babnip, a young girl from the Telefomin region, with whom he had developed a mutually affectionate relationship, when the time irrevocably came that the patrol had to move on.
It is striking, too, that in 1946, when the Highlands were still largely untouched, Taylor was so impressed with the people that he speculated about the likelihood of them eventually casting off Australian control to become politically independent in their own right.
Was this another reason that after his wartime work was completed he was demoted by well placed, white supremacist administrators and eventually gave up kiap duties altogether?
Simon Gende (1999) - No 1 Kiap blong Australia Mr Jim Taylor I brukim bush long Highlands Papua Niugini (The first Australian Officer, Mr Jim Taylor, in an exploratory mission in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea)
Robert Forster is author of The Northumbrian Kiap