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Tanim tok: government's voice in colonial PNG

This piece was inspired by a conversation between Raymond and his father (‘A policeman remembers….’), who spoke of the venerated role of the colonial tanim tok (interpreter)

Sigimet - kiap with luluais. tultuls  tanim tok and other local officials
Kiaps talk with luluais, tultuls and tanim tok


DAGUA – Kiaps were government patrol officers within the Australian colonial administration who were tasked to bring control over the 850 tribes of the territories of Papua and New Guinea.

A vital person who patrolled with kiaps in this arduous and sometimes dangerous task was the tanim tok.

A tanim tok was appointed by the kiaps and he was usually a community leader who spoke the languages and dialects of the region and who could relate well to the people.

He was a person of stature who had some exposure to the white man's world, enough to communicate in Police Motu or Melanesian Pidgin, the lingua franca which most of the white men knew.

Some tanim tok had the advantage of a basic government or mission school education.

Some also had the distinction of serving as luluais or tultuls (Administration appointed tribal officials) or in the army during the Pacific War while others had worked as plantation labourers, mariners, miners or house servants at government or mission outstations.

The role of the tanim tok was an important part of the colonial Administration as the people were beginning to come in contact with the outside world.

He travelled with the kiaps, police and carriers wherever they went as a bridge between the kiaps and the people at a time when most of the people could speak only their own vernacular languages.

When kiaps heard court cases or settled disputes, the tanim tok’s role was critical.

Their knowledge and understanding of languages, cultural norms and traditional conflict resolution practices were vital in solving conflicts and bring justice.

Along with the police, they were the kiaps’ right-hand men.

Negotiations and court hearings could not be held without them.

Their translation had to be perfect, any mistranslation, miscommunication or distortion of facts could lead to injustice or an escalation of conflict.

So the contribution of the tanim tok to the early development of PNG was massive but has been often underappreciated and even unrecognised within PNG's recorded history.

If the kiap was the face of government, the tanim tok could be described as the voice of government.

Without the tanim tok and others like the policemen, carriers and was kanu (the canoe men of the rivers and lakes), the work of kiaps and other officers of the colonial Administration would have been more difficult, slow and hazardous – and even impossible.


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Arthur Smedley

Chips, you mention Liatani Baloiloi. I remember him well along with his diminutive wife, Susanah.

One of their sons was the late Doura Baloiloi who became a kiap and I think reached the rank of Deputy District Commissioner. Doura later worked with the National Intelligence Office.

Chris Overland

As a young kiap I was critically dependent upon the my tanim tok both as an interpreter and a sort of cultural guide.

Consequently, these men occupied positions of real importance and the best of them were hugely valued on patrol and in routine station work.

In a somewhat similar way, senior police with extensive patrol experience were wise in the ways of both kiaps and the local people and they too played key roles in the work of the administration.

As Raymond relates the tanim tok was an integral part of the governance of PNG without whom the work of kiaps, didimen and many others would have been hugely more difficult.

Chips Mackellar

And not only that but because the interpreters also had to interpret during court cases, they became very familiar with the practice and procedure of the courts, with a certain knowledge of the law, not a knowledge obtained academically, but knowledge acquired during the hearings in which they were interpreting. Some of the first PNG nationals selected for training as Local Court Magistrates were former tanim toks for the kiaps. My interpreter at Esa'ala was Liatani Baloiloi, and he became one of the first national Local Court magistrates. He was an excellent magistrate, just as he had formerly been an excellent interpreter. He was also a good friend, and I remember him well. PNG lost a good magistrate when he died.

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