Cannibals, Conflict & First Contact: 21 Years a New Guinea Patrol Officer by Robin Barclay, Independently Published, 2021, 282 pages. ISBN: 9780646839608. Soft-cover $55, hard-cover $150 plus $18 postage (express $22). Contact the author at [email protected] to purchase copies of the book and its artworks
TUMBY BAY - In the literary tradition of controversial colonial magistrate CAW Monckton (1872-1936), Rob Barclay’s new book is a politically incorrect version of the kiap experience in pre-independence Papua New Guinea.
It’s a curious thing that Australia has never celebrated or mythologised its pioneers in the same way as Americans.
There are few rousing tales of iconic Daniel Boones or Chief Sitting Bulls in our founding narrative. The closest we get is a second-rate bushranger garbed in clumsy iron armour.
Instead we fall back on war as a way of defining ourselves, including a perverse celebration of a World War I campaign against the Ottoman Empire that ended in retreat and is now heralded as a glorious moment on the beaches and ridges of the Gallipoli Peninsula.
This doesn’t infer that there are no great stories worth telling from Australia’s post-invasion history.
On the contrary, the pioneering period abounds with fascinating events and personalities equal to and as enthralling as anything Americans or any other people can offer.
But it requires a little digging to unearth them.
One particular story almost totally ignored is Australia’s story in Papua New Guinea.
This history to the average Australian means World War II and the brutal Kokoda Track campaign in which the advance of the Imperial Japanese Army was bloodily halted and pushed back.
Beyond that, however, Australians know little of their early adventures in their nearest neighbour.
The 73 years of Australia’s stewardship of Papua New Guinea provide many dramatic episodes of enduring historical significance, often involving larger than life personalities.
Accounts of the exploration, pacification and development of Papua New Guinea by Australian patrol officers (‘kiaps’ in Tok Pisin), missionaries and fortune seekers is a prime example. It is a frontier story like no other.
The last of this diminishing number of men have entered old age and their exploits are emerging in a steady stream of memoirs, overwhelmingly self-published.
It is said it was a sense of adventure that drew young men to PNG to work as kiaps.
That may be so but the underlying motive was more often a youthful rejection of the limits and banalities of everyday life.
This is borne out by the reality that so many kiaps had great difficulty adjusting to life in Australia when most of them had to leave as independence approached.
In 1957, aged 19, Robin Barclay was looking at an uninspiring future in the furniture department of Melbourne’s Myer Emporium.
When he saw an advertisement calling for Cadet Patrol Officers to work in PNG, he immediately despatched his application.
A successful athlete in his youth, Barclay believed this athleticism was a determining factor in his selection as a pikinini kiap.
And that same adventurous spirit informed the way he approached his task in PNG.
In ‘Cannibals, Conflict & First Contact’, Barclay describes his own hierarchy of ambition to discover the perfect, most challenging, outpost as he built a long career.
At his lower end of aspiration were the “long-settled and sophisticated” coastal regions that offered greater creature comforts but little risk.
At the top were the shrinking number of remote outposts of the mysterious Great Papuan Plateau.
These were “the holy grail of all aspiring officers: contacting new and often strangely different people in previously unexplored areas”.
It was Barclay’s goal to find his holy grail and this was demonstrated by the more than 2,600 days he spent on patrol, totalling more than seven years of his 21-years as a kiap.
He eventually fulfilled that quest at remote Nomad River on the edge of the Great Papuan Plateau, a distant and remarkable place near the Indonesian border.
It was a place where I as a kiap had administered, patrolled and been hugely inspired.
The golden age of European exploration occurred from the 15th century to the early 18th century and coincided with the growth of colonialism by most of the metropolitan powers.
While all major exploration was over by the mid-1800s, there remained small pockets of mystery scattered here and there, places where the intrepid could still venture.
In Papua New Guinea the major exploration phase lasted longer - well into the 1950s, and in isolated areas into the early 1970s.
This latter day exploration involved tracking down small groups of previously uncontacted people and introducing them to the modern world.
In his seminal work, ‘Kiap: Australia’s Patrol Officers in Papua New Guinea’, Jim Sinclair devotes a few pages to some of the personalities and patrolling at Nomad River.
“Australians were surprised to read in their newspapers of cannibal raids, tribal killings and the discovery of tiny bands of bushmen in the wilds of PNG: surely such things were not still happening?”
And of Barclay:
“A thick-set, powerful man with immense shoulders, Robin Barclay did not initially impress me – he was surly in manner and he never would submit reports on time – but his field ability was so unusual that I soon changed my mind.
“The work that Barclay was to do in the field at Nomad was in the finest traditions of Australia’s kiaps in PNG.”
It could be said that the shrinking untouched remnants of the Age of Exploration eventually came to an end in the 1970s at places like Nomad River.
Barclay’s narrative is disarmingly frank and employs a deprecating humour.
And his many sketches and paintings add a continuing energy to the words. Most kiaps carried cameras; Barclay bore a palette.
And his writing is similarly revealing, showing no reticence in giving voice to the unmentionable.
It is stuff that would have made the Colonel Blimps in the kiaps’ Port Moresby headquarters decidedly uncomfortable.
Barclay’s quest for the holy grail of exploration had been forced to wait while he undertook service in several of the “long settled and sophisticated” parts of Papua New Guinea.
It began in idyllic Milne Bay District, its headquarters then located on picturesque Samarai Island where pliant island maidens like the delectable Delores provided him with refreshing distractions.
Then in 1965 he was posted to remote Ambunti on the Sepik River where he cajoled his superiors to allow an 80 day contact patrol.
This took him to the unexplored headwaters of the Leonard Schultz and April Rivers where he encountered 1,200 isolated and doleful souls.
Three years later he was transferred to Nomad River in Western District as Assistant District Commissioner.
Nomad River had been established as a patrol post by Patrol Officer Mal Lang in 1961 and later gained sub-district status.
When Barclay arrived at Western District headquarters in Daru, the District Commissioner told him, “I want you up there in 48 hours to take over.
"Your job will be to stamp out cannibalism and bring the Biami to heel.”
Barclay had found his holy grail.
As he describes them, the Biami (or Bedamuni) were ruthless hunters of human protein who savagely raided their neighbours “clubbing and axing” them and carrying off bits of their dismembered bodies “stuffed into string bags”.
“To look at the arrogant, implacable expression of a powerfully built young Biami, was to almost feel the intensity of the feral power emanating from the region’s top predator. There was no mercy to be seen in the dark adamantine depths of his eyes: not for anyone; not now or ever.”
Also, as Barclay observed, many Biami groups had remained uncontacted and unhesitatingly attacked intrusive Administration patrols.
Anthropologists have disputed Barclay’s characterisation of the Biami but his boots were on the ground and his pen and sketchbook always close by.
And, like many people in the Western world, he maintained a deep fascination with remote peoples and their practices, including cannibalism.
After a final lengthy contact patrol into the Upper Strickland area, Barclay brought his quest to a conclusion.
“The carriers began to chant as we marched triumphantly down to the station. As deep male voices reached a powerful crescendo, the massed station people began to cheer. I felt great pride that the final page of New Guinea’s discovery and consolidation had at last turned.”
It is a bold and contentious claim, it will be contested, but is consistent with the provocative tone of his narrative.
Together with the suppression of cannibalism, it is a trope to which many pages of the book are dedicated.
Barclay married while at Nomad River and after four years there he was transferred to Chimbu District, in the heart of the PNG Highlands, with his wife, Sandra.
There he grappled with an increasing breakdown of law and order and the perils of tribal warfare.
In 1976 they moved on to the Madang District, which Sandra enjoyed. By then they had two daughters. In 1979 Barclay left Papua New Guinea never to return.
His book is lavishly produced, replete with many photographs, coloured sketches of the situations he encountered, paintings and maps.
His portraits are particularly good, including one of the delectable Dolores. He is now offering many of these as framed artworks for sale.
There is much in the book that is controversial and disputable, and adherents to political correctness will have a field day if they choose to dig out their pet peeves with censure in mind.
That may not be bad, however. After all, much of what Barclay writes articulates what many of the ageing kiaps feel but are disinclined to say.
The debate about their role in Papua New Guinea’s development continues nearly 40 years after most of them left, many feeling their job was incomplete.
Barclay has made a valuable contribution to understanding this debate.
The eight years it took him to produce this magnificent book was time well spent,