Australia could have been a better coloniser
10 February 2023
TUMBY BAY - During my short career as a kiap, I often pondered my presence in Papua New Guinea. What was I doing there and why was I doing it?
Kiap, didiman, tisa, kuskus, dokta, ansini, kamda* - I suppose we were all missionaries with the same message to sell.
The message? ‘We are culturally superior and we want you all to adopt our way of life.’
It was a fairly arrogant, even pernicious message. The longer I was in PNG, the more I came to doubt its utility.
We didn’t have to do what we did. And even if we had to, the way we did it could have been different.
We could have left the existing cultural structures in place and simply provided mechanisms to keep away the plunderers - the miners and loggers; the recruiters of forced labour - and those with imperial ambitions.
After all, Australia became a coloniser in Papua, which had been British, and New Guinea, which had been German, more by circumstance than intent.
We weren’t particularly interested in both colonies except as a strategic geopolitical buffer and a source of wealth for some.
But for Australia, these territories were costly to maintain and more of an albatross around our neck than a twinkle in our eyes.
And I think we would be flattering ourselves to claim that the colonised people actually welcomed us. They had little choice in the matter.
My experience among the Biami (Bedamini) of Nomad River in Western Province made that understanding crystal clear.
The Biami people didn’t want us there and they fought to keep us out at every opportunity.
And there are still little pockets of Indigenous people holding out against Western influence all over the world.
In our neck of the woods the people of Tanna Island in Vanuatu are a good example.
In the island’s high villages, the people stick to their traditional clothing of penis sheaths and grass skirts. They shun modern inventions and keep their children away from school.
Similar groups still manage to hide away in the Amazon rainforests and on remote islands in the Philippines.
I suppose it’s easy to argue that the westernisation of Papua New Guinea was inevitable.
If it wasn’t Australia some other colonial power would have been there. In fact, two colonial powers had been there.
Once exposed to the trappings of Western society, many Indigenous people wanted such goods for themselves.
When Graeme Pretty and Tony Crawford from the South Australian Museum went to PNG’s Southern Highlands in 1968 to collect artefacts, the people couldn’t wait to get rid of their stone axes and bows and arrows in exchange for Western goods.
Such was the alacrity of this desire, in his report on their expedition Graeme referred to the exchange as salvage ethnography.
Some of us sometimes think of our time in PNG as a noble cause but we seldom mention the destructive nature of our endeavours, well-meaning or otherwise.
That destruction is now visible to anyone who cares to observe the dysfunctional state of Papua New Guinea today.
Ask any woman in any street of the capital, Port Moresby, what she thinks of that wonderful Western import called alcohol.
Or ask any man what he thinks of the obese politicians living in their mansions on Touaguba Hill.
Ironically, it is only in some of the least developed rural areas that we can find what might have been.
People in those places living with minimal outside influence are, by and large, happy and content.
It’s all too late now of course. There’s no way of turning back.
And the past usually tends to be viewed through rose tinted glasses.
Nevertheless, as a grumpy old bugger with time on my hands to chew over the past, I think I’ve come to the conclusion that we could have done a better job in PNG in the time we had there.
A little more thought probably wouldn’t have gone astray.
More refined knowledge about the cultures in which we were embedded, better understanding of what the people really wanted and more astute consideration of what the future might hold.
We just weren’t up to that, I’m afraid
* Tok Pisin-English Glossary of Colonial Officials
kiap = patrol officer, district officer, government field officer
didiman = agriculture officer
tisa = teacher, education officer
kuskus = clerk
dokta = doctor, medical officer
ansini = engineer
kamda = carpenter
I am sure Phil is right when he says Australia could have been a better coloniser.
That said, I am sure that it was very far from the worst colonial power in history and, in my estimation at least, Australia's colonial model was perhaps the most fundamentally benign version devised during the European imperial era.
The truth is that it is not possible for those of us who were part of the colonial period to offer a completely balanced judgement on this matter. There is simply too much of ourselves involved to be completely objective assessors.
A lot of time and academic reflection will be needed before an approximation of an objective judgement finally emerges that enjoys more or less general support.
For example, when the history of the British in India is being discussed, the same facts are capable of sometimes quite radical interpretation.
Basically, it all depends on what your point of view is to start with.
If you start with the premise that the British Raj perpetrated many evils upon India, there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate this.
Similarly, if you start from the premise that the British brought many lasting benefits to India then there are many facts which support this assertion.
Happily, there are historians such as William Dalrymple who produced a history that strives to strike a balance between these two extremes. His magisterial book 'The Anarchy' vividly demonstrates that neither the British nor the Indian ruling elites were either especially virtuous or irremediably evil.
As is usually the case, the truth was surrounded by a fog of lies, misrepresentation, obfuscation and mythology.
Oscar Wilde once said the truth is seldom pure and never simple. This adage is worth remembering when it comes to assessing Australia's history as a colonial power.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 10 February 2023 at 01:00 PM
As usual Phil, I rise to your bait like a well conditioned trout. The mere fact that you mention the comparison with other colonial nations should be enough to at least answer part of your question.
The real quandary most of us found ourselves in was to emphasise the beneficial aspects of our society but not downplay the positive and beneficial aspects of the PNG societies we found ourselves working with.
The travesty was the almost total disconnection between us at the 'kunai roots' and the people in Canberra to whom we were ultimately responsible to as they funded us and our endeavours.
There was never any concept of taking over and absorbing PNG as a seventh state once we experienced the Melanesian cultures differences from our culture. That can't be said if one looks at what goes on in West Papua and why.
I've had esoteric arguments with a person who is 'ethnically' from the north of our region and he thought we should have just moved in and taken over. Clearly that's what the people of his background would do if they were permitted to do so.
The vestiges of our national cringe about colonial frustrations are just too strong even though we have basically allowed our education curriculum to be ameliorated down to nothing and our young people become very sanguine about anything that isn't the latest 'wizz bang' technology.
PNG people now need to educate themselves and us about both their history and our history and what might have happened if that impossibly thin veneer of Pax Australiana' hadn't been there for for both our nations and for just a few short years.
Posted by: Paul Oates | 10 February 2023 at 09:15 AM