THE TOLAI ARE BELIEVED to have originally come from New Ireland. When they settled in the Gazelle Peninsula they pushed out the Baining, who fled to the mountains. Those Baining on the coast not killed or eaten by the Tolai were used as slaves.
The surviving Baining retreated to occupy the foothills of the Rawlei Range and the land south west of Ataliklikun Bay.
Other Baining villages were located north and south of the Warangoi River and in the hinterland west of the Rawlei Range.
They are thought to be the descendants of the first people to reach New Guinea and its islands. Sometimes referred to as Negrito and in contrast to the tall and virile Tolai, they are small, stocky people.
One of the Baining groups caught up in the Tolai invasion was the Mokolkol, who were located on the narrow isthmus between Wide and Open Bays.
For many years they remained beyond contact of the German and then Australian administrations. All that was known of them were their sudden raids on coastal villages. They would attack and then disappear back into the jungle.
They became legendary and were regarded by their victims as devils from another world. It wouldn’t be until 1951 that a patrol succeeded in reaching one of their hamlets.
The only weapon the Mokolkol used was a long-handled obsidian axe. The stories of the deadliness of these razor sharp blades and the silence in which the Mokolkol approached struck terror into the hearts of people for hundreds of kilometres along the coast.
The Mokolkols were a small group of less than a hundred people. No one knew where they originated.
Some said they were the survivors of a tribe wiped out by the fleeing Baining as they searched for new homelands. Others thought they were the Baining descendants of deserters from German plantations.
The story goes that a German kiap had called together the people living in the Tol area following a number of murders.
The Baining were fingered as the culprits and without warning the German police opened fire on them, killing many. A few got away into the bush and their descendants were said to be the dreaded Mokolkol.
The first Australian patrol to attempt contact with the Mokolkols went into the mountains in 1931. The kiap found one of their recently deserted settlements and set up camp to wait for them to come back.
The Mokolkols returned four days later under cover of drizzling, misty rain and, swinging their long axes, hit the patrol hard. They left two dead and four badly wounded and disappeared.
The next patrol into the area was in 1934. The kiap found an old man with two women and four children. On the way out the Mokolkols put an axe through the head of a lagging carrier.
The adult Mokolkol the patrol brought out of the mountains quickly succumbed to illness and died but the children survived with two of the girls eventually marrying policemen.
In 1939 a party of 10 Mokolkol raided Kalip. They swept through the village pillaging the houses for steel axes. In their wake they left 25 men, women and children hacked to death. When the Kalip people presented the kiap with a stick with 25 notches in it, he took off after the Mokolkol.
After several days the patrol came across a small village behind a heavy stockade on a ridge. Kiap John Milligan and Corporal Yeng crept up for a closer look and were spotted by a lookout.
The man yodelled an alarm and then charged the kiap and policeman swinging his long-handled axe. They had little choice, and shot him in the chest.
They followed the Mokolkol for two weeks but saw neither hide nor hair of them. When the village was revisited it was found to be abandoned.
The following year a patrol investigating more Mokolkol outrages got close but the wily bushmen slipped through the net. They abandoned a girl of about 10 with an injured leg. She had apparently been a member of the raiding party.
Nothing was heard of the Mokolkol for a while until 1944 when they attacked a party of Australian and Papua New Guinean troops operating behind enemy lines.
The troops were ready for the Japanese but not the Mokolkol, who swept through their camp in the early morning swinging their deadly axes. Neither side suffered any casualties beyond a rifle butt split by a long-handled axe.
Again the Mokolkol went quiet but in 1950 they struck again and raided a village in the Kasalea area killing 11 people.
Around this time a Catalina pilot flying across the Gazelle Peninsula saw a small village in what had been presumed to be uninhabited country and reported it to District Commissioner Keith McCarthy.
The DC flew back over the village with the pilot and they attempted to fix its position. The opinion in Rabaul was that the village was occupied by a remnant group of Japanese soldiers but the DC thought otherwise.
To find the village, he despatched Assistant District Officer David Fenbury, Cadet Patrol Officer Chris Normoyle and Bill Heather, a forestry officer with surveying experience, along with eight police under the command of the experienced Corporal Bosi.
The patrol armed itself with a Bren gun just in case there were Japanese in the village.
When they came across a hunting camp Corporal Bosi said, “They’re Mokolkol Kiap. This is an old axe handle. We’re on their trail and by a count of their beds I’d say there are 15 of them.”
The Mokolkol led the patrol on a merry chase. After six days Corporal Bosi was moving alone down a gorge ahead of the main party when he came across a small stream. In the porous limestone country water was scarce and he hid in the bush and waited. Soon a woman appeared with some bamboo containers and filled them with water.
Fenbury and Corporal Bosi followed the woman’s path. When they came to the village it fitted the description given by the DC and the pilot. Corporal Bosi crept ahead When he came back he said, “They’re Mokolkol and they’re not suspecting a thing.”
“I was afraid they would be Japs,” Fenbury whispered.
“Kiap, they’re not Japs,” said a surprised Corporal Bosi. “Japs could not get here without leaving tracks. And you know yourself what noisy buggers they are. Besides, I think I could smell a Jap even at this distance!”
They decided to raid the village straight away.
Corporal Bosi led the two kiaps, six police and Luluai Moite and eight of his carriers back to the village. There was an open stretch of ground before the settlement. Then the ground fell away rapidly on the other side.
If the Mokolkol heard the patrol they could escape down there easily. Corporal Kindili and three of the police worked their way around to the slope. When they were in position, the patrol moved on the village.
A pig sighted them and began snorting in alarm. Someone had said that the Mokolkol trained their pigs like dogs. A woman came to check and uttered a fearful yell and headed for the bush. Then the patrol was in the village.
The police went quickly through the houses. Then from the doorway of one of them, a huge man emerged. In each hand he swung a long-handled axe. The police and carriers backed away in awe.
He was a magnificent sight and for a brief moment, before Fenbury put a burst of fire from his carbine at his feet, he was master of the scene. The man dropped his axes and dived back into the house.
“Look out that he doesn’t break out through the back wall,” shouted Corporal Bosi. It took them a while to winkle the man out of the house.
When he was in the open and handcuffed he made signs to the corporal to knock him on the head and be done with it. Corporal Bosi later said that he was tempted by the offer but declined.
The patrol managed to capture two men, a woman and four children. The rest of the Mokolkol, maybe 30 people, slipped away into the bush.
The village was well supplied with food with plenty of taro and slabs of pig meat hanging from the rafters in the houses. Corporal Bosi collected 42 axes. He guessed there might have been about 35 people in the village with maybe 10 being adult men.
The big man they captured and who was sawing at his handcuffs with a piece of obsidian appeared to be sick with malaria. The attempt to take his temperature was thwarted when he bit the thermometer in half and chewed up the glass pieces.
On the way back to the coast Corporal Bosi shared betel nut with the other man, who was called Malil. The big man was called Lamu and he nearly died of pneumonia in Rabaul but, despite his determination to die, he was saved. The woman, Manu, quickly adapted to capture and began to enjoy herself in Rabaul.
Six months later the men and the woman were taken back to their village. Malil and Lamu went off, each holding a new steel axe. Manu stayed with the patrol and assured Fenbury the two men would soon be back with the rest of the clan.
In seven days Malil and Lamu returned with six other men in tow. They shouted greetings to Fenbury and Corporal Bosi. When the excitement of their arrival had died down they began to chant.
It was one word: “Akis! Akis! Akis!” repeated over and over again. Corporal Bosi was already breaking open a case of axes.
Manu, who had learned Tok Pisin in Rabaul, interpreted for the patrol. Malil, now sporting a luluai’s cap said, “It is much easier to get axes from the white man than raiding for them. Come back in six months Kiap and we will have a proper road for you and a rest house for you to sleep in.”
The luluai kept his promise. Six months later a patrol visited Atar, a new village built along
coastal lines with a commodious rest house and police barracks.
In 1956 a group of Mokolkol burst out of the bush into a settlers place near Wide Bay. The men were carrying long-handled axes and the plantation labourers scurried for cover.
However, when the men saw the settler they greeted him cheerfully and asked for salt. The settler handed out liberal portions and the Mokolkol left. They didn’t ask for axes and they never raided again.
David Fenbury’s account of the Mokolkol patrol formed a series of three articles in the ‘Bulletin’ in 1956. Accounts of that and other patrols in quest of the Mokolkol appear in Malcolm Wright’s book, ‘The Gentle Savage’, published by Lansdowne Press of Melbourne in 1966