SOMBRE … YES: I THINK SOMBRE is the best single word to describe the brownish mood pervading my study tonight.
It could hardly be otherwise, for I am writing about Papua New Guinea—that beautiful but almost broken country, squandering its potential to be rich, happy, vibrant, achieving and respected.
I shall not mention the bizarre parliamentary elections now nearly complete; this article is being written for Quadrant of 1 September, and readers will long have known how all that turned out, including the routine PNG electoral statistic of how many people were murdered in the course of the poll.
I speak from ancient memory, without support of document or diary, but today could be precisely the seventieth anniversary of the start of a curious three-day navigation northwards from the Gulf of Papua, up the broad waters of the Lakekamu River, there to change from boats to boots for a land journey of some ten days, through the high and rugged jungles and grasslands of PNG’s central mountain ranges.
In the early stages we traversed the territory of the deadly Kukukuku cannibals; later, it was all downhill to the old mining town of Wau, on the famous Morobe goldfields of the former Mandated Territory of New Guinea.
We thus exchanged the hazards of the Kukukuku for the different dangers of tens of thousands of invading Japanese soldiers in their new and nearby coastal bases at Salamaua and Lae.
If, seven decades ago, one of the hundreds of huge saltwater crocodiles basking on the Lakekamu’s marshy banks had chanced to raise a languid eyelid at the right moment, he would have glimpsed an immense canoe moving slowly upstream.
A vessel less handy than the light and nimble outrigger canoes which skip about the PNG coasts cannot be imagined. Our craft was a single hull, hollowed out from the trunk of one stupendous hardwood tree.
When I stood amidships in the well, I had to stretch upward to grasp the gunwale. Some tree!
She was powered by a big petrol outboard motor, thrust obliquely into the water from the port side near the stern. A spare motor, primed and ready, lay handy in the well, against the ever-possible emergency of the present propeller shearing off on the floating logs and flood-wrack of the river.
Our very self-same crocodile might still be there today—the brutes can live to well over a century; perhaps he would recall that our ship’s company comprised three skilled black crewmen from the river villages nearby, each wearing nothing but a light and quickly dried-out loincloth.
Next, there was one barefoot black policeman, hand never more than inches from his .303 army rifle; perched atop his pile of fuzzy hair was the regulation khaki peaked cap, with its shiny brass police badge of the old Mandated Territory.
Then came the passengers—four of them. All were fresh-faced young Australian warrant officers. From various Australian army units then serving in or near Port Moresby, they and others like them had volunteered to become cadet patrol officers in a newly-formed unit called ANGAU (Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit).
In February 1941, martial law had been decreed over both Papua and New Guinea. With one swift stroke of the Australian Governor-General’s pen, all civil government functions had been transferred to ANGAU, a unit so new that it had barely found itself an office. It was now to conduct all the civilian apparatus of courts of law, police, jails and all the governmental services of the peacetime administration.
But that was only the half of it, or less. ANGAU had also an enormous load of strictly military and operational duties for the army: First, there was the conscription and organisation of male native villagers “over the apparent age of fourteen”.
These were to become cargo carriers for the Allied forces, stretcher bearers for wounded and sick soldiers, labourers for every kind of airstrip and road construction, there was food-growing (especially of rice and sweet potatoes) as rations for the troops, and any other humble task that arose, down to the digging of latrine pits. There were crews to be supplied for the numerous small coastal ships.
In the forward areas, in contact with the enemy, native people carried out intelligence tasks of extraordinary bravery and of great operational value.
ANGAU had for its foundation and its framework chiefly the old “kiaps”—tough “outside” men from the peacetime Department of District Services. Indeed it was possible about these men to use truthfully the words of the Bible—“there were giants in the Earth in those days”.
One of my own direct superiors had, in the 1930s, been carried from the bush on a rough stretcher. He looked, they said, more like a dartboard than a human, so many were the Kukukuku arrows protruding from his torso.
There was a leavening also of other New Guinea “old hands”—gold miners, coconut planters and so on—but after that the talent pool became shallow. Indeed, so shallow that ANGAU would even recruit such utter new chums as those four lads in the big canoe.
The formal selection criteria were, after all, not really exacting: (1) to be not over 24 years of age; (2) to hold the equivalent of the Australian School Leaving Certificate. (At 18, I was the youngest in that little group of four.)
Our couple of weeks training was minimal—for example, no law and no languages, not even the vital medium of Melanesian pidgin English (“tok pisin”). Yet we were all newly-hatched Magistrates for Native Matters, with power to pass sentence of death for the graver crimes!
It was the greatest comfort to us four that sentence could not be carried into execution without the confirmation in writing of the commander-in-chief. (That was General Blamey, a figure rarely seen in our rugged parts.)
Arrived in Wau, our new boss, the District Officer, inspected us in a friendly way, and said he wouldn’t send us out into the bush for a couple of weeks yet—“just take it easy”. No doubt our last fortnight on the track had been hard going for beginners, and we had lost some weight. Our little “holiday” was filled by all sorts of safe and simple jobs in and around Wau itself, and we picked up many useful scraps of New Guinea “lore”.
Then our DO sent each of us, solo, off to different and distant postings, to keep the general law and order, in all our new magisterial dignity. Our lonely posts were up to a fortnight’s walk from Wau, and there was no radio communication.
As escorts, each of us had one or two black constables with their .303 rifles, on whom we relied wholly for guidance and (let it not be denied) for comfort.
Clarrie James was a farm-bred boy who had become a junior public servant in Canberra. He was three or four years older than me. He was sent from Wau to the wild central highlands where the villagers were still virtually savages.
(Yes, I know it is now not politically correct to say that, but we might as well settle for the truth. PNG people who today might hold respectable professional qualifications will tell you in tok pisin with a grin: “Tumbuna bilong mi, em i no putim klos; em i wokabaut nating. Em i save kaikai man. Em i wailmain tru.”—My grandfather had no clothes. He went about without any. He ate human flesh. He was a genuine wild man. Quite without comment, I quote for you a short paragraph from the London Spectator of 21 July this year (page 4): “Police in Papua New Guinea who had arrested 29 people for making soup from the penises of seven witch-doctors whose fees were too high said: ‘They don’t think they have done anything wrong.’”)
On his lonely station, every time Clarrie walked past the darkened doorway of a highland house he risked a silent cluster of arrows in his chest; every step towards the shade of a concealing tree might produce the fatal axe-blow between the eyes. He endured malaria, dengue fever and dysentery. He cruelly smashed up his body in terrible falls from slippery log bridges into deep gullies. Several hundred miles apart, and all unknowingly, the two of us were sharing the painful experience of trying to cobble together our own shattered ribs with rolls of adhesive plaster.
Clarrie made the PNG service his life career, an honourable dedication equally to two countries—his own Australia and his adopted PNG. Then, to round off the gift, he wrote a splendid account of it (ANGAU: One Man Law, 1999). Every bit is true—a singlehanded history of the late-colonial period which Australia and PNG shared. It is a plainly told story, but its essential character reflects the words of Lord Clarendon, King Charles I’s old Chancellor: “to be believed—the only justifiable end of eloquence”.
Unlike Clarrie, I returned to live in Australia after the war, a move which slackened my devotion to PNG not one scrap. Since those days I have made 27 return visits, managing for long to keep in touch with many of my old wartime friends among the villages, and keeping my tok pisin serviceable.
Melbourne University Press (of which I became Director in 1962) issued a steady stream of pioneering books relevant to PNG. Under the chairmanship of Nobel winner MacFarlane Burnet, I became also general editor of a three-volume Encyclopaedia of Papua and New Guinea, product of the pens of over 200 leading specialist scholars all round the world.
MUP published this “in association with the University of Papua and New Guinea”, an institution just getting into its stride. We thought this might add something to its early scholarly status, which it did, though briefly. It was glowingly reviewed upon publication, and clearly it would soon sell out.
I raced up to Port Moresby to see whether some local financial assistance might be available to help a prompt reprint, and was promptly received by an indigenous official of senior rank.
Yes, he thought a useful sum might well be found for such a worthy purpose; pause; winning smile; then: “Of course, you understand there’d have to be a cut in it for me.” I walked without a word out of his office, feeling for the first time that “sombre” sensation that troubles me tonight.
PNG was undoubtedly an Australian colony, and colonies belonged back in the nineteenth century. But that should not summon fearful images of the Congo and Joseph Conrad and Mister Kurtz. Many of the worst colonial abuses (such as gross alienation of native lands to outsiders) had been avoided.
There was a (not very lively) assumption that PNG “really” belonged to its original owners, that we held it “in trust”, and that “one day” we would return it to them, together with their independence. Such a program was perhaps the lowest priority item on the slate of any Australian government; after all, how many votes from PNG were ever counted in Canberra?
The strongly surviving elements of tribalism, and the slow development of any national ethic have allowed the standards of public life rapidly to turn rotten, at all levels. Unusually these days, the Constitution establishes the country as a Christian one; missionaries are numerous and vocal, but they show disappointingly little influence on the morality of public life.
Australia spends some $500 million annually on international aid to PNG, but the form of much of it is ill-conceived; the PNG people are not basically “part of the picture”, and of every aid dollar, a few cents actually trickle through to the village people who need it.
Much of the funds become siphoned off by the salaries and costs of the experts and bureaucrats who administer the schemes. Meanwhile, HIV-AIDS runs rampant, and public health services are a horror and a disgrace.
For the 12 years from 1951 to 1963 it was possible to feel up-beat (rather than “sombre”) about PNG’s prospect of a successful transition from colony to thriving, independent modern state.
For that unusually long term the Minister for Territories was Paul Hasluck, and the Department ceased for once to be Sleepy Hollow, and became a humming, creative machine: PNG might have a future, after all. The respect held for Hasluck by the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, ensured Cabinet support for greatly enhanced spending.
Then came Gough Whitlam and his government. Running in mortal funk from the Russian anti-colonial bloc at the United Nations, Whitlam flung PNG into a forced and sudden independence which was wildly premature, and which some of PNG’s sounder indigenous leaders were reluctant to accept. Then it all fell apart.
When Australians of good will examine our national conscience in regard to PNG, they find it disgraced by two huge black spots. The first is the shameful Whitlam betrayal. The other is our disgusting meanness after the end of the Japanese war.
That great gentleman Gavin Long, general editor of Australia’s massive multi-volume official history of the Second World War, put it in plain words: Australians imposed on PNG’s native people wartime burdens far heavier than they were prepared to bear themselves.
And when peace came we behaved like cheapskates: no pensions; risible compensation; no serious plan for their future development. We aren’t a very nice lot.
There! Have I made you feel a little sombre yourself? Good—that may be a start. And remember: our nearest international neighbour, now a dubious quantity, is only a short canoe-ride away.