IN May of 1950, acting Assistant District Officer John Gibson was on his way to Melbourne to get married.
It was to be a big wedding, and June was the society wedding month. Gibson was talking about getting a job with the United Nations; he said the UN paid tremendous salaries and offered wonderful travel opportunities.
I should have listened to him; another 28 years would elapse before I joined an international organisation and began to see the world.
So Gibson departed Kairuku on the Papuan coast and Malcolm Wright (pictured) arrived.
A lowly Patrol Officer prior to the war, Wright had finished it as a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Australian Navy, his outstanding courage and bravery as a Coastwatcher recognized by the award of Distinguished Service Cross.
Wright had enjoyed his first post-war posting, as ADO in charge of the Finschhafen sub-district.
At the nearby naval shore station, HMAS Tarangau at Dregerhafen, his wartime exploits and naval rank were recognised and acknowledged, and there were invitations to functions at the Officers Mess, dining-in nights, dinner dances, movies, and tennis afternoons.
Nearby, the crystal-clear waters of the freshwater pool at Butaweng were the ideal place to recover from the heat and humidity.
Kairuku was a backwater by comparison. It was Wright’s first Papuan posting and he was not enjoying it.
He railed against Mick Healy’s parsimony and the frustrations of the Papuan system, but he maintained his cheery disposition. He smiled and his eyes twinkled as he puffed on his curved-stem Petersen pipe.
I watched his frustration increasing, and I began to understand the role the Assistant District Officer played in the community. He ran the Sub-district; he was the administrator and the coordinator.
He ran the bank, the post office and the telecommunications, and he was also the stipendiary magistrate, the coroner, the senior police officer and the gaoler. He could put people in gaol, look after them while they were incarcerated, discharge them when their term had expired, and then help them get back to their villages.
He could, and did, issue a myriad of licences, and he could perform marriages. The Sub-district office was where it all happened; it was the hub of the community.
The clerk Bera Baupua must have spread word, that the new government taubada was not only a notable worth talking to, he was also friendly and approachable. Village leaders arrived to check out Wright for themselves.
They came from Hisiu on the coast in the east, from Waima and Kivori in the west, and, from the hinterland, the Roro and the Mekeo. Some arrived with a gift tucked under their arms, a live fowl seemingly subdued by the occasion.
The Catholic Bishop, André Sorin, made a gracious official call while knowing full well he could easily influence our careers—he was a member of the highest government council, and the Administrator sought his opinion.
The Bishop was a charmer. Born in 1903 in the Bay of Biscay town of Les Sables d’Olonne, he worried about a strong French accent that nobody else noticed. When he attended the occasional social at the Wright’s house, he was the life of the party, playing popular melodies on Grace’s upright piano and singing unaccompanied his vast repertoire of Roro and Mekeo love songs.
Percy Chatterton was another visitor. He headed the London Missionary Society at mainland Delena, visible as a red roofed complex on a low cliff three kilometres across the Sound.
I soon learnt to be wary of him. A bluff, hearty soul, he had come to Papua from England in 1924 when he was 26. He lacked the Bishop’s subtlety and finesse and he was somewhat overbearing.
When he disapproved of something, he wrote a letter of complaint to the Administrator in Port Moresby. He even wrote one about me: he thought that, with my lack of experience, I should not be attempting to mediate disputes. Maybe he was right.
The Sacred Heart Mission, established on Yule Island since 1885, was only a five minute drive away and it was like a small town. It dwarfed the government station and flaunted a massive church, the Bishop’s Residence, the Fathers’ House, a Sacred Heart Convent, a Convent of Carmelite nuns, the De La Salle Brothers Boarding School, mechanical and carpentry workshops, bulk store, printery, and a primary school.
A fleet of launches and a small coastal vessel, MV Saint Francis, lay at anchor at the Mission wharf.
On the surface, the Mission was a tranquil and happy community but underneath it mirrored the tensions of war-torn Europe.
As in France, the loyalties of the missionaries had been divided during the World War II.
When Germany invaded France, the former French Army hero, Marshal Pétain, as Premier, disarmed the French forces and surrendered 60 percent of France to German control. As Chief of State in the Vichy Government, he nominally controlled the rest of France and advocated Franco-German collaboration.
In Lebanon and Syria, there was fierce fighting between the Vichy French and the Free French forces. By 1950 the war-time animosities and divisions had waned in France and Kairuku, but had not disappeared.
Another visitor, Bill Adamson, friendly but reclusive, came only to collect his mail. He was a tall and strong man with big bones, big frame and a strong jaw. His nose looked as though it had been broken more than once.
Two years earlier he had been District Officer in charge of the whole of the Central District: Port Moresby, Abau, Rigo, Goilala and Kairuku. As a prewar Assistant Resident Magistrate, he had led exploratory patrols around Lake Kutubu and the area now known as the Southern Highlands.
Like Wright, he had resigned to join the Navy and served on armed merchant ships in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. Now he ran his small plantation—at Ou-Ou Creek, on the mainland—but he always had time to chat and he gave me a lot of good advice.
Wright arrived and I was relieved of the Cash Office duties. He said I should be trained not left to my own devices or to do jobs that no one else wanted to do.
I moved into my new house and could walk down to the 7am roll call in a few minutes and return to the house for breakfast. At midday, I had an hour and a half for lunch to eat a simple meal: chilled meat out of a tin served with cold tinned vegetables and then fresh fruit - pineapple, custard apple, soursop or mango.
I soon found that despite what it said on the label, only three of the many varieties of tinned meats were palatable: the army-style bully beef in a rectangular can, the pressed ox tongue and the expensive ham.
While I ate, I read one of the newspapers that my parents had posted to me from Sydney. The newspapers came by sea mail and arrived about every six weeks—30 Sydney Morning Heralds in each batch.
I read them in chronological order and I read almost every word: news items, editorial, and Births, Deaths, and Marriages.
Those Heralds had another value. Finely chopped, twisted tobacco was rolled in a piece of newspaper to craft a cigarette, and the Sydney Morning Herald, with fewer photos and less thick, black printers’ ink than other papers, was said to give the coolest smoke.
I was the only source, and I exchanged them for papayas, limes, custard apples and the custard apples’ larger cousins, the bullock hearts.
After work, during the three hours left of daylight, I developed a vegetable garden. I had already organised two prisoners to build a goat-proof fence around the house and turn the hard, clayey soil into gardens beds.
All I had to do was collect the charcoal and ash from the fuel stove and turn it into the soil before I planted seeds and doused them with water from the kitchen tap.
An Agriculture Department program provided seeds for distribution to village people, but they were not interested. The seeds were old and the people preferred paw-paws, bananas, citrus, yams, taro, cassava and dark leafed greens to insipid lettuce.
I planted all I could but only the tomatoes, silver beet, beans and pumpkin seeds germinated. The insects loved silver beet and turned it into lace, so I planted more for them to eat—each alternate row. They then left the other plants alone. I ate the tips of pumpkin leaves as a substitute for silver beet.
Most evenings, I ate at home alone. Meat from a tin, tinned vegetables, boiled pumpkin leaves and baked sweet potato or taro. The tins of meat were labelled with exotic names, but, no matter what they were called, they had little flavour and tasted like stew.
At night, I read one of the library books I had borrowed from the Port Moresby Public Library. A small diesel-powered generator produced enough electricity for the expatriates’ houses to each have a few lights from dusk until 10.30 pm, then it was time for bed and the radio.
While the generator was running, radio reception was restricted to the crowded short wave band, but, when it stopped I could listen to the broadcast stations in Townsville and Cairns.
The weekend was the loneliest period. It was then I most resented the rule that only allowed me to mix with the expatriates, particularly when Philo’s young female relatives stopped to gossip.
If I were working in the garden when they passed, they would lean against my garden fence, pert bare breasts just resting on the round topmost bamboo rail while they chatted, asking questions about the garden and my well-being.
I tried to focus on their eyes and not show any interest in the more interesting bits. They probably thought I was gay.
It was not long before there was another distraction. The Catholic Mission reported that the people from a village in the Goilala Sub-district were plundering one of our mountain villages.
Malcolm Wright and Ron Galloway, the Goilala ADO, had a conversation on the radio and agreed to meet in the mountains; Wright would leave next day, and I would accompany him.
We organised the rations for the police: brown rice, sugar, tea, salt, ships’ biscuits, tins of bully beef and sticks of tobacco. Our food went into a patrol box with the kitchen gear.
We each packed two other patrol boxes - one with our clothes and the other with bedding. The camp table, camp oven, folding chairs, lamps, kerosene, and buckets made separate loads.
There was barely a ripple on the sea as we crossed to the mainland on the Nancye Lee: Wright, Brown, six police, two cooks, one medical orderly and Bera Baupa, the clerk.
The skipper, Tom Baker—dressed in his habitual tattered shorts and shirt, and with his parchment-like skin and wisps of grey hair polished with diesel oil—perched barefooted, parrot-like, on the stern.
He called commands to the native helmsman in the wheelhouse below; flying into an 80-year old’s equivalent of a tantrum when his commands to change course, as we approached the river mouth, were ignored.
The crew knew where we should be headed and they had younger eyes and could see the channel and sandbar at the river mouth. I wonder how some unimaginative soul could have discarded the river’s original name, prosaically renaming it Ethel.
Just a few kilometres to the west, a larger river, the Angabunga, sounded so much better, as did the name of our destination, Aropokina, and the villages we would pass - Fofo Fofo and Deva Deva - as we trekked to our rendezvous at Oba Oba.
We crossed the bar and pushed ahead. It was a sluggish river, no signs of habitation, a solid wall of trees, shrubs and vines growing to the water’s edge.
Occasionally, as we passed a clearing, a crocodile would glide quietly into the stream or charge down the bank erect on its hind legs, yellow tinted underbelly exposed as it raced to splash noisily into the water.
From Aropokina, the riverside roadhead, we travelled courtesy of the Catholic Mission truck to Kubuna, a smooth 20-kilometre journey along a grassed road.
The priest seemed a tad unfriendly when we called on him. Perhaps the roadhead location meant he received too many visitors, or maybe he was remembering that only eight years earlier Roden Cutler, an Australian, had won the Victoria Cross in the fighting against the Vichy French in Syria.
That was the same year the British Navy had attacked the French Fleet, anchored at Mers el-Kébir on the Algerian coast.
In contrast the Little Sisters, members of an order of Papuan nuns, welcomed us with beaming smiles. Amazing to me, in that heat and humidity, only their brown faces, bare feet and forearms appeared from beneath the heavy grey habits.
I was surprised how their expatriate colleagues dwarfed them, and was more surprised that the French Mother Superior, Mother Geneviève de Massignac, towered over us all.
They sat in the refectory and talked to us about their work, but retired immediately after serving tea and cakes. The rules did not allow them to eat or drink with us.
By the time we returned to the rest house, the pressure lamp had been lit and a hot meal of tinned meat, tinned vegetables and mashed potatoes prepared. The table was laid: tablecloth, salt and pepper shakers, knife, fork, soupspoon, dessertspoon, side-plate, cup, saucer and teaspoon.
It was the first time I had slept on a “bed-sail”, a sleeve of canvas threaded over two horizontal poles, and stretched taut between them. The sleeve was too short, my feet pushed against the net and the mosquitoes bit the soles of my feet.
We moved on next morning, the villagers carrying our gear, two men to a load. Bamboo poles threaded through the U-shaped patrol box handles, chairs, tables and sacks of rations divided into loads and also lashed to bamboo poles.
Missionaries had designed the graded track for their mule trains and the people had built it: cutting the track through the jungle; carving out the mountain side with picks and shovels. Up spurs, down ravines, bridging mountain streams.
At that time, they had been enthusiastic. They had been told of the progress the track would bring, but now they were less than enthusiastic. The progress had not occurred, and they were expected to work on the track every Monday.
The rain poured down as we climbed. Over the years, the mule trains had formed chains of potholes. Now those were filled with water and soon our boots were filled with a mix of water, mud and horse manure.
Burr-like grass seeds invaded our socks and worked their way into the skin. As the day wore on, Wright cursed the plant seeds in his socks which he declared were a form of “prohibited, noxious weed” and in another outburst remarked, “We could be working as tram guards in Sydney, be warm and dry, and get more pay”.
It took two days of steady climbing to reach Oba-Oba. We arrived late in the afternoon, cold, tired, and drenched by the afternoon deluge.
Father Somereaux and Father Louis Vangecke were expecting us. The news of our progress had been shouted across the valleys. We were quickly ushered to our rooms and warm showers. We were welcomed, then dined and wined. We were not of their faith, we were two protestant government officers, and were received and treated like princes.
Oba-Oba, next morning in the sunlight, was almost a postcard scene. From the verandah of the Fathers’ house, the small wooden chapel at the end of spur but a touch higher, was framed by a grove of pines. The mountains ranges in the distance provided a dramatic backdrop. A ring of dark, green-leafed citrus trees fringed both sides of the spur.
Father Louis from the Mekeo village of Beipa had been orphaned at an early age, reared by the Sisters of Mercy and had trained at a seminary in Madagascar. He dressed in beige cotton trousers and shirt, was tall, slim, almost Indonesian in appearance.
As a newly ordained priest in 1937, he had unwittingly made one of the first challenges to the discriminatory, colonial legislation. As a Papuan he was not permitted to drink alcohol. How could he fit into the Mission ritual or undertake his sacramental duties under that prohibition?
Father Somereaux, a jovial, tubby Frenchman, had brewed the sparkling, orange wine that we drank prior to the evening meal and the red wine—fermented from raisins and sugar—that was served with the evening meal of smoke-cured beef and home grown vegetables.
He also distilled the nightcap served after the meal, a green Chartreuse liqueur, by filtering medicinal alcohol many times through herbs imported from France.
Ron Galloway, the ADO from Tapini, walked in to Oba-Oba the following day and he and Wright tried to sort out the Kuni people’s side of the story of the Goilala plundering villages.
Bera did not speak the Kuni language and Galloway’s interpreter from the Goilala was not doing any better. Eventually, a Kuni policeman, Lance Corporal Ai’a Kaio, on leave from Port Moresby, interpreted from Kuni to Motu, and Bera interpreted from Motu to English.
When it was time to leave Oba-Oba for the Kuni-Goilala boundary, there were not enough men to carry all the gear but Wright was not perturbed. He decided to leave me behind at the Mission. Maybe, he was tired of my chatter.
I spent the next five days with the Fathers. Father Louis only appeared at meal times, but Father Somereaux spent much of the day with me. Despite the mandatory post-war requirement for returning missionaries to speak and read English, Somereaux did not.
He had attended the Order's live-in training program in Australia, but had fudged it, speaking only Latin. We stuck to simple conversation, Ai’a Kaio helping out on occasion, and we played a lot of chess.
One month later, I was again being shown the ropes, this time in the Mekeo. I am not sure what the official objective was apart from the census but the message I kept getting was, “This is what you have to do, and this is how you do it!”
It was unlike the Kuni. There were no mountains and there were no steep trails. We walked on level, grassed roads fringed, on either side, by a line of coconuts.
The whole Mekeo, an area of about 40,000 hectares, was an alluvial floodplain with only one hill which rose just 60 metres above the plain. The soil was rich and gardening was simple; there was an abundance of vegetables. Even the most lucrative crop, betel nut palm, flourished with little maintenance.
The Mekeo Rice Project was rolling out and it was Bill Cottrell Dormer’s favourite project. He was Director of Agriculture and that ensured funding but it did not stop the criticism.
Treasury Inspector Duncan complained that there was only enough fuel oil at the site to sustain the tractors for a few weeks but enough gear box oil for ten years and that some of the expensive machinery—imported from Italy—was designed to produce rice paper for cigarette-manufacture.
Duncan also queried why staff had been sent to the Murrumbidgee to study rice groing under irrigation when the Mekeo was a dry rice operation, the seed being planted into ploughed fields.
The Bishop was less critical. He said the people were being paid to watch the white man work. And the people were totally relaxed. They had watched the government’s schemes come and go.
We spent from 29 August to 8 September 1950 visiting the 12 villages. The people kept their disputes and their problems to themselves and settled them themselves.
At Beipa, our first stopover, and the biggest village, with a population of 607, I learnt exactly how to write up a new census book to economise on space but make it all work, grouping the details of young women together so they could be deleted when they married and left the family, estimating when single men would marry and placing their names leaving sufficient space for their marriages and future children.
By the time we had finished that patrol, I think I knew a something about village hygiene and almost everything about conducting a village census. I had learnt a little humility, and I was about to learn a lot more.
Bishop Andre Sorin.
Catholic Mission on Yule Island, 1950 (Bill Brown).
The bush missionaries drop in for a drink, 1950: Father Somereaux, the tubby little Frenchman from Oba Oba in the Kuni; Father Verges, a Spaniard based at Beipa in the Mekeo; Bill Brown. Photo taken on Bill's front verandah.
Oba Oba Mission Station - Fathers' house top left adjacent the church.
Beipa village, 1950 (Bill Brown).
Wright and his Coastwatching squad in wartime: (left-right) Simogun Pita BEM (later Sir Simogun Pita BEM MBE KBE); Malcolm Wright DSC; Les Williams MC (later District Commissioner Madang); others unknown.