RUMMAGING THROUGH DR PETER CAHILL’S wonderful collection of Papua New Guinea colonial memorabilia in the Fryer Library of the University of Queensland a while ago I came across some old postcards of Port Moresby by ‘Chin H Meen: Photographer, Port Moresby and Rabaul’ – all printed in the USA.
One of the postcards showed a view of Ela Beach circa 1967. It must have been a weekend or public holiday because the beach was quite crowded.
What struck me as strange about the scene was that there wasn’t one Papua New Guinean in view. It then occurred to me that even as late as 1967 Port Moresby was very much a European town. The scene could have been re-enacted anywhere on the Australian coast.
Stuart Hawthorne, in his book, Port Moresby: Taim Bipo confirms this impression. As a frequent visitor to Port Moresby these days, I had somehow conflated what I see today with what I saw way back then. Not so, I realised – it’s like two completely different towns.
Towards the end of his book, Stuart has a crack at explaining what went wrong with Papua New Guinea in general and the sleepy old town that many Australians remember in particular.
While he points out that his analysis is merely a personal opinion, he puts it down to the rapid change of pace after the careful administrator, Donald Cleland, retired in 1966 coupled with pressure from the United Nations on Australia and the culpable stupidity of the mandarins in Canberra who took control.
This part of the book doesn’t come across in a particularly convincing way; the whole subject is problematic and it is doubtful whether there will ever be a definitive answer. That aside, it is the rest of the book that will interest readers on both sides of Torres Strait.
Stuart arrived in Port Moresby in 1957 when he was eight years old and stayed there for 20 years – arguably during the heyday of the old colonial town. His father worked for John Stubbs and Sons (Papua) Limited, which was a building and construction company.
It is his reminiscences of ordinary life in Port Moresby and the large and eclectic collection of photographs, advertisements, maps and newspaper clippings that go with them that are the real attraction of the book.
The latter appear to have been culled from his family collection and those of his friends and acquaintances. They are represented by the occasional stunning shot as well as much that is fuzzy and faded.
There is a delightful feel of voyeurism flicking through these personal photographs and the exquisite details accompanying them – a bit like sneaking a peek at someone’s old photograph album. There is also a liberal sprinkling of historical material to fill in the gaps.
The photographs and details certainly have an historical value but I suspect that the major appeal will be the nostalgia generated for the people who knew the town in those halcyon days. Even those who made a point of avoiding Port Moresby as much as possible will find the old memory stirring.
And I wonder whether those three young constables on patrol at Koki on the cover are still around. More than likely they are and, if not, their children will certainly recognise them.
If you’ve got a copy of Ian Stuart’s 1970s Port Moresby: Yesterday and Today this new book will complement it beautifully.