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Honouring the life of Sir Hubert Murray


| Extracts of a letter from Mr Greenshields to Australian environment minister Tanya Plibersek, and copied to foreign affairs minister Senator Penny Wong and arts minister Tony Bourke MP

Murray 1

MILLSWOOD, SOUTH AUSTRALIA - This article is based on a letter I recently wrote requesting the Australian government to consider including the grave of Sir John Hubert Plunkett Murray in Australia's List of Overseas Places of Historic Significance.

In the above photo, taken in 1907, Murray is seen with a member of his staff at Government House in Port Moresby.

I worked as an architect in Papua New Guinea for 16 years from 1966 to 1982, which covered a remarkable period of colonial administration, self-government and national independence.

After returning to South Australia in 1982, I worked as a heritage architect for 30 years, including experience in cemetery conservation and the preservation of historic sites. I maintain close contact with PNG, and visit regularly.

Sir Hubert Murray’s grave is in the old Badihagwa Cemetery in Port Moresby and, from my research, it is apparent that many people have sought to have the grave preserved. The Australian High Commission in Port Moresby is aware of the significance of the grave and has erected protective fencing. Its staff conducts periodic working bees to keep the site clean.

Previously I have sought without success for the assistance of the Australian War Graves Commission to have the grave listed as a place of historic significance

It seems that, as Murray served in the Boer War of 1899-1902, his grave is not eligible to be brought into the Commission’s care.

Murray served as Lieutenant-Governor of Papua from 1908 until his death in 1940 while on an official visit to Samarai Island.

He was a remarkable man, who devoted 32 years, most of his working life, to the Papuan people, the expatriate community and to the humane application of Australian values including world-leading governance at the time.

Janetta Douglas wrote in 2023 (used with permission) summarised:

“Sir Hubert Murray became the Chief Judicial Officer of Papua in 1904 and Acting Administrator of Papua in 1908, and quickly introduced laws protecting the customary rights of villagers and earned the wrath of white settlers who were intent on exploiting their resources.

“His humanity, his resistance to indentured labour, his fascination by village customs and life style and the respect he showed for settlement of local disputes plus his huge support for missionaries providing education and health facilities to every villager his ‘outside men’ had met during their patrols….all financed from taxing the white settlers…. would initially make him the most hated of men, but he stood his ground and as a result his visionary actions would have a profound effect on Australia’s treatment of its own Aboriginal people.

“He travelled to every nook and cranny in the country by foot and boat, encouraging his patrol officers to build ports, roads, airstrips and a communication network that would prove invaluable in the defence of Australia from the Japanese invasion and actually listened to local’s opinions. What a man!

“Two of his greatest contributions to PNG were in Agriculture and the establishment of Trade Schools and apprenticeships. He had Agricultural stations in every major centre to experiment with tea coffee cocoa and copra then encouraged locals to plant and manage their own plantations. [In Papua] he introduced land lease arrangements that remain to this day for new owners.

“He was a one man revolution and eventually earned the respect of every black and white person he met. His death in 1940 rocked the colony. Fortunately he was succeeded first by his nephew, Leonard Murray then, after World War II, Sir Donald Cleland was at hand to take over his reins and get industries going again and lead PNG to Independence while maintaining Australian control of the shipping lanes and the people in the Torres Strait Islands.

“The history of Australia could have been so different if Murray and Cleland had not been around. Murray’s grave, surrounded by graves of the first Pacific missionaries to PNG, deserves to be recognised by the Australian government.”

You can read more about Murray here in papers by historian Hank Nelson and lawyer Ian Molloy.

Murray largely forgotten grave and life are of historical significance to Australia for many reasons including his service as Chief Justice from 1904 and Lieutenant-Governor of British New Guinea [the Territory of Papua after 1905] from 1908 until his death on duty on 27 February 1940. His was a remarkable life of civil service.

He is arguably the most significant individual in the largely peaceful transition of Papua towards unification with New Guinea. He should also be remembered for his adaptation of British and Australian laws to suit PNG culture, his progressive and humane views that made their way into policies that introduced the modern world to Papuans.

Murray supported the interests of the Papuan people against settlers’ demands for cheap land. His land lease system that avoided the appropriation of customary land through unfair dealing still stands this day. Overall, he was an exemplary public servant and statesman who should be remembered with great pride in Australia. Today, Murray’s name is recognised in place names like Murray Barracks, headquarters of the PNG Defence Force, but his life and his grave are largely forgotten.

In an obituary delivered at a traditional Masi Ariana death feast (cited in Sir Hubert Murray of Papua by Lewis Lett), Village Councillor Ahuia Ova declared:

“Governor Murray is dead. He worked until he died. He was our Governor for more than 30 years. During all that time we saw his work and his laws. And we have seen his good deeds also. When our people were in trouble, they went to him, and he did not turn them away. In our trouble he gave us help and made us happy again. There was no man like him in this way.

“Wherever he went in Papua, he spoke friendly words. He was never harsh towards men or women or children. He brought great happiness into our lives. Therefore we say that he was good. But in February this year he died. We, his people, remember him and weep.

“He treated us always as friends. His way towards us was the way of a friend. We think of him still, and we shall think of him always, for he guided us well. Now we make for him this feast according to the custom of our people. The ways of his people were not our ways. But he understood us and made our lives happy. We too understood him, and we loved him. Therefore we now make this Masi Ariana.

“But who is like him in Papua? There is none. There will never be one like him. He came among us and saw our lives. Sometimes when he was younger, he hunted and fished with us. He knew us in all our ways. Sometimes when his work was done, he met us on the roads. As we came home from our gardens, he greeted us. Now we have lost him, for he is dead. We shall not know his friendly ways again.

“There were Governors here before him, but we know nothing of them. Our fathers have not told us of them. There was only one Governor in our time. He was the best of men; our children and their children will talk of him. But he is gone, and we have lost him. Our hearts are heavy because of his going. He promised us all ‘I will not leave you. I will die in Papua.’ His words were the words of a true man, for his body now lies in our ground.”

Murray was the most outstanding colonial administrator of his time. His length of service, progressive policies and the admiration in which he was held all play testament to the mark of a great and highly respected administrator.

The recognition of his gravesite on the List of Overseas Places of Historic Significance to Australia is the least Australians can do to mark the life of an outstanding Australian.

Such recognition requires only modest interpretive signage and regular maintenance. And, with support from the Australian and PNG governments, and the Motu Koita Association, the site would commemorate our shared histories, at events like PNG Independence Day and Australia Day.

This nomination is made on behalf of the many people, past and present, who regard Murray as the greatest administrator in Australia’s proud Pacific history. Celebrating Sir Hubert Murray and his work in Papua could be a vehicle for highlighting the enlightened approach and example to the rest of the world that Australia took while administering Papua New Guinea.

That this enlightened approach resulted in a peaceful handover of governance at Independence, and colours Australia’s continuing relationship with PNG, owes much to the life and work of an outstanding Australian.

Sir Hubert Murray deserves to be remembered in perpetuity.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Here is a short video that explains Hubert Murray's importance:


Philip Fitzpatrick

The reign of Lieutenant Governor Sir Hubert Murray over Papua between 1908 and 1940 was in many respects a heavily accented Irish affair.

Murray’s Irish antecedents are outlined in his friend, Lewis Lett’s 1949 biography, 'Sir Hubert Murray of Papua: Statesman and Empire Builder' but less so in Francis West’s dryer academic biography of 1968, 'Hubert Murray: The Australian Pro-Consul'.

Of Murray’s own writing his 1925 'Papua of Today or An Australian Colony in the Making' comes close to revealing what lay behind his thinking regarding the administration of Papua but is necessarily guarded.

It is fortunate, however, that West subsequently published 'Selected Letters of Hubert Murray' in 1970. It is in this volume that the actual character of Murray is revealed and his strong Irish influences made plain.

Murray had been baptized into the Church of England but later converted to Catholicism. Part of the reason for doing this was his emotional attachment to his Irish background. West noted that he “held up Irishness-Australianness and Catholic faith as desirable virtues”. In 1904 he set out to learn Irish.

In many of his personal letters he refers to the ‘murdering English’ and makes derogatory remarks about the ‘Irish Ascendancy’ which resulted from the forced and substantial transfers of property from the Gaelic Catholic lords to English Protestant investors and settlers in the 17th century.

It was this knowledge that influenced his decision to resist the alienation of native land in Papua and to make the welfare of the Papuan people a priority in his deliberations.

Many of his field officers, his ‘outside men’, were Irish Australians and shared his views. His unofficial publicist and sometimes advisor, the writer and journalist Beatrice Grimshaw, was an Irish feminist.

James Joyce once observed of Ireland: “Had we been allowed to develop our own civilisation instead of this mock English one imposed on us, and which has never suited us, think what an original, interesting civilisation we might have produced.” Hubert Murray not only had mixed emotions about the English but also about British colonialism. He thought he could do better in Papua.

Over the term of his governorship he assumed that Papua, as per the widespread understanding following the 1906 Royal Commission, would become an Australian state while New Guinea, as a mandated territory, would proceed to independence, possibly by 2030 in his estimation.

He was initially a supporter of the amalgamation of Papua and New Guinea but changed his mind when the administration of the latter continued to follow the example set by the previous German administration. In a letter to his brother George in 1939 he says “I have heard a resident of New Guinea boast that their native policy was superior to ours, and give as an instance the fact that we play cricket with natives, which they would consider beneath their dignity.”

Murray lived frugally in Papua and eschewed the pomp normally associated with the position of governor. He did not own a uniform or fancy hat with feathers in it and dressed much the same as his staff.

He frequently welcomed Papuan visitors to his humble residence. In 1937 a Papuan priest, trained in Madagascar by the Jesuits, visited him. The priest spoke French, English, Latin and two local languages. Being a Papuan he was not supposed to drink liquor, be out after nine pm in any township and not wear clothes on his upper body. Murray ignored all of these restrictions and enraged some of the white residents in Port Moresby. Murray wryly observed: “I suppose that the truth really is that they resent a native being so much better educated than themselves.”

Following Murray’s death in 1940 the Papuan governorship went to his half-brother’s son, Leonard Murray, who had worked closely with him since 1909 as his secretary. Leonard admired Hubert’s policies and practises and continued on with them in his position as Administrator during World War Two.

In 1945 Colonel Jack Keith Murray was appointed Administrator of the combined Territory of Papua and New Guinea. He was not related to Hubert Murray but was an admirer with similar beliefs. He pursued what he called a 'new deal' for Papua New Guineans, establishing village courts and village councils, creating co-operative societies, developing extension courses in agriculture, training staff and setting up aid-posts and moving the workforce from an indenture system to one of free labour. He treated the Papua New Guinean people with respect and consulted communities before making decisions.

When the Murrays invited Papua New Guineans to functions at government house, many Europeans boycotted them and Murray was dubbed 'Kanaka Jack'. He was a Labor appointee and after they lost government he was regarded with suspicion in Australia. He was dismissed by the Menzies government in 1952 and replaced by Donald Cleland. Thus died the remarkable influence of ardent Irish-Australian, Hubert Murray.

Kindin Paulus Ongugo

A fitting story for the Christmas season. But who is like him in Papua? There is none. There will never be one like him.

He brought great happiness into our lives.
Sir Hubert Murray walked in the way Christ preached.

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