| From a story originally published in
the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier
PORT MORESBY – ‘Only in PNG!’ People might think this catch-all phrase for our country’s extraordinary quirks is a relatively recent addition to our lexicon.
But if the outrageous stories in John Brooksbank’s new book, ‘Eda Moresby’ (Motu for ‘Our Moresby’), are anything to go by, the expression would have applied way back to before Papua New Guinea existed.
Only in PNG would Papua have been declared a British protectorate no less than four times before the British Crown finally ratified it wanted to protect it in 1888.
Only in PNG would zealous LMS missionary James Chalmers be eaten upon landing at a village in the Kikori River delta in the Gulf.
And, when young governor Christopher Robinson, who authorised a raid in retaliation for Chalmer’s death, was criticised, he shot himself in 1904 in front of Government House. (The same Government House that still sits above Konedobu.)
“Strangely, his memorial is at Samarai,” adds Brooksbank. Perhaps another ‘only in PNG’ moment?
There are many more facts littered throughout ‘Eda Moresby’, with the same mix of curiosity, amusement and surprise.
Early-day government official, George Hunter, after whom the street in downtown Moresby was named, was suffocated in 1890 by his female lover and her conspirators.
The enterprising founder of Steamships Trading Company once sold goods through the bathroom window of his bungalow on Douglas Street (where the present-day Nasfund office stands), making - in just one day - a record £1,300 (K300,000 today).
And notorious Tabari Place, sometimes described as the Vision City of more than 50 years ago, was a place to avoid.
All these anecdotes are colourfully ‘PNG’ in nature and Brooksbank, for the sake of posterity and our collective insight, has collated them into a coherent narrative in his part-tribute, part-textbook publication.
You can think of this hardback as a compilation of the stories that never made it into standard history books – either in PNG or Australia.
Readers of Air Niugini’s inflight magazine Paradise will be familiar with Brooksbank’s humorous style as well as his specialist knowledge.
He blends these elements nicely in ‘Eda Moresby’ to deliver a work that is at the same time informative and quirky.
It includes a section devoted to the failed pikinini kiap (cadet patrol officer) who became the larger-than-life Hollywood actor, Errol Flynn.
Flynn, who thought he might make a fortune on the Morobe goldfields, made a pest of himself in New Guinea before heading to the United States and swashbuckling fame in the early 1930s.
Brooksbank also makes an appreciable start on explaining the complex web of intermarried mixed-race families.
And in a five-page spread, he recounts the achievements of nation-building entrepreneurs like Sir Brian Bell (Brian Bell Group), Chin Hoi Meen (CHM), Sergey Mosin (Mosin Plaza) and Mahesh Patel (City Pharmacy Group).
Brooksbank has an unsurpassed eye for unusual detail as he traces the mostly-ad hoc expansion of the city from pre-colonial beginnings to when the outsiders arrived permanently in the late 1800s.
From there he takes the reader through the two world wars and on to Independence in 1975, when a nation was born and began to form a distinctive national identity.
Other chapters cover ancient trade routes, early churches, the gold fever of the 19th century, street names, suburbs and settlements, beer and breweries, current landmarks and muse on Moresby’s future prospects as people continue to migrate from other provinces – for work, play or trouble.
Brooksbank does not shy away from the facts, however taboo or controversial.
He knows these stories, many of almost incredible cast, make PNG’s capital city what it is today.
Because people don’t just say, ‘Only in PNG’, they also acknowledge PNG in all its vibrant complexity as ‘The Land of the Unexpected’.
Both history and lived experience tells us to expect more of the same, as Our Moresby – Eda Moresby – hurtles along its own bumpy road.