‘Steamships Trading Company 1918-2008: A History’ by James Sinclair, Alan Caudell and Associates, Palm Cove Qld., 2008, 468pp. Around $300 or K450 if you can find a copy. I understand Bill Mcgrath at Pacific Bookhouse has one for sale
THIS MASSIVE BOOK is not commercially available and it has taken me a while to lay my hands on a copy.
It weighs 2.8 kilograms and measures 346x250x37 mm. It is a sort of personal indulgence on the part of past Steamies directors and board chairmen.
Lugging it from Steamies head office on Champion Parade to the airport in my backpack worked up quite a sweat.
Having read it, I would urge Steamies to consider bringing out an abridged version in a cheaper paperback.
It is a book well worth reading because the history of the company runs parallel to that of Papua New Guinea. The numerous crossovers are both fascinating and enlightening.
A paperback would also mitigate the aching arms that you will inevitably experience reading the present version.
Jim Sinclair is no Shakespeare but he is a very deft master wordsmith. He is also meticulous with a capital ‘M’.
He has been producing these sorts of commissioned volumes for some time now and they are building up to be a unique reflection on Papua New Guinea’s past. He is currently working on a commissioned history of Edie Creek.
He told me that when he was posted to Port Moresby just before independence as a district commissioner with a vague portfolio and not a little spare time on his hands, that he noticed the Australian administration diligently junking what they thought were irrelevant records.
Jim managed to insert himself between the dumpers and the dump and this material now forms an important resource for his writing.
He got a scare in this year’s floods in Queensland but fortunately it all survived. He plans to leave it all to a selected institution when he finally runs out of steam.
But back to Steamies. The company kicked off around 1918
but a serendipitous event in 1924 was the impetus for its remarkable rise. The Steamies website tells the story.
“The company's history began in 1919. Retired sea captain Algernon Sydney Fitch was growing apples in Tasmania for a living when he read about a barge named the Southern Cross going aground in the Bass Strait.
“He decided to salvage it and travelled to Melbourne to raise 5,000 Pounds sterling and find a suitable ship for the salvage operations. He discovered a 90 ton coal burner, built in 1855, called the SS Queenscliffe. A group of businessmen backed Fitch and together formed a company which they appropriately called Steamships Limited.
“Fitch's plan had no connection with Papua and New Guinea. But what happens next was not in the scheme of things. The Southern Cross sank beneath the waves.
“To make matters worse the syndicate ran out of money whilst making the veteran Queenscliffe seaworthy. Fitch proposed that he sail the ship to Port Moresby and earn some money by trading along the Papuan coast. In 1924 the Public Company was formed”.
Steamies had many competitors over the years, including the mighty Burns Philp, but it outlived them all and is still thriving.
There are some good reasons for this, not the least being its long held policy of training and employing Papua New Guinean staff wherever possible.
Coupled with this were a commitment to Papua New Guinea in general and a refreshing aversion to the profit-at-all-cost mentality. It supported many charitable and other causes in Papua New Guinea, mostly in the background and without undue fanfare. It has been a strong supporter of the Crocodile Prize since its inception.
Throughout its history, Steamships scrupulously followed the letter of the law, albeit sometimes reluctantly when it perceived the law as inappropriate.
In other words, while it could be a ruthless and intimidating adversary it was and still is an honest and ethical company. Its environmental credentials are a credit to it. And, no, I haven’t got shares.
When you mention Steamies in Port Moresby, people in the know will tell you that it has been taken over by Swires, the big British trading company based in Hong Kong, and is no longer the Steamies of old.
This is technically correct but, as Jim Sinclair explains, Swires has had a very long history in Papua New Guinea and beginning in 1952 has had many active partnerships with Steamies. That it now holds a majority shareholding is more luck than anything else.
The diversification of Steamies from the original shipping company into a multitude of businesses and then its retreat to its current core businesses of shipping, transport, manufacturing and hotels is an intriguing and mind-boggling journey which must have come close to driving Jim Sinclair nuts when he was writing the book.
Through it all, however and as Chairman Bill Rothery said in 2008, Steamies has been “proudly Papuan New Guinean for 90 years”. He adds, This is a testimony to the determination and strength of its owners and managers over these years and to the growth and resilience of the country and its people.”
Steamies founder, Captain Algernon Fitch, had an uneasy relationship with Sir Hubert Murray, the famous Papuan Lieutenant-Governor, but they eventually came round to appreciate each other’s point of view.
Sinclair suggests that it was probably Hubert Murray’s enlightened views eventually rubbing off on Captain Fitch rather than the other way around.
In any event, the good captain steered Steamies out of the total devastation wreaked by World War II and set it on a healthy course of expansion. He was gone by the time of the equally devastating reign of Prime Minister Bill Skate.
Skate managed to wreck the Papua New Guinean economy in a very short space of time and also came close to wrecking Steamies and many other companies like it. Despite the valiant efforts of his successor, Mekere Morauta, the Skate effects are still felt today.
Unfortunately Michael Somare in his second incarnation as Prime Minister failed, or wasn’t interested, in keeping up the momentum that Sir Mekere had generated.
It is not until you read the history of Steamies that you realise how bad Skate was and how many of Papua New Guinea’s chronic problems started with him. If Somare founded Papua New Guinea, Bill Skate came close to sinking it.
A lot of people worked for Steamies over the years. A lot were dedicated but unassuming. Some, like the bean counters, were downright tedious but there were also some delightful mavericks, rogues and eccentrics who gave the company an exciting flavour.
Jim Sinclair had access to most of the surviving managing directors and a lot of the current and retired employees. He sprinkles their histories and views liberally throughout the text. Some of the most colourful were the sea captains that Steamies trained and employed and who lent their names to the company ships.
Sinclair also consulted board minutes, including those from the very first formal meeting in 1924, which not only survived the war but two conflagrations of the company headquarters in the 1970s, annual reports, old newspapers and numerous other sources. How he is still sane is nothing short of a miracle.
It is a history well worth sharing with a much wider audience. How about it Steamies?