BILL BROWN MBE
AT Kairuku, I was trying to learn Police Motu, the lingua franca in Papua, but not making a lot of effort.
There was no real need, everyone in the office spoke English: Bera Baupua, Philo Parau, even the office boy Leo Aitsi.
I was grinding through Percy Chatterton’s Primer of Police Motu, a tiny, 30-page booklet packed with grammar and lists of words. But it had been trimmed by his puritanical hand and was a tad uninteresting
My progress, or lack of it, was not good enough for war hero Malcolm Wright.
In short order, I was back on the mainland with three Papuan police, walking the East Coast road to the Sub-District boundary.
I knew that the police had their instructions: they were to only to converse with me in Police Motu; they were not to speak English, Pidgin or baby talk. They were to restrain me from idiocy, and they were to keep me out of trouble. That was 66 years ago – I was 20 years old.
My tasks were to follow the East Coast road to the Sub-District boundary, rewriting the census books at villages on the way. At Kanosia Rubber Estate, on Galley Reach—our eastern boundary, I was to finalise an outstanding land application.
Assistant District Officer Wright thought it would take me two to three weeks to complete my tasks. When I had done so, at Kanosia, I would be only about 20 kilometres from Port Moresby.
Wright suggested I go there by boat and have a brief break in the town before returning to Kairuku.
Once again, I crossed to the mainland, but this time I was headed for the anchorage at Ou-Ou Creek where Bill Adamson’s truck and driver were waiting to transport my party the short distance down the road to Oroi village.
The old Army phone line ran waist-high alongside the road and I could see why the telephone no longer worked beyond Delena. There were many missing sections leaving large gaps in the line; the single-strand, heavy-gauge, copper wire was now in the rigging of many a village canoe.
The village census had become increasingly important after the war’s end.
In New Guinea, records that had been lost were being replaced. In Papua, the Village Book, introduced in 1948, was a new concept, replacing the former small Village Constables Register.
The new book listed the names of all the inhabitants of a village. Each village had a book; some of the larger villages had two.
It was an odd-shaped book—foolscap size (330 mm) in length and two-thirds that in width. It had a stiff cardboard cover and a spine bound with a cloth reinforcing.
The left hand pages were divided into four adjoining columns: two wide ones for people’s names - males on the left, females on the right - and two narrow columns for their respective years of birth.
The right hand page provided for notations and comments: why a name had been added or deleted, an added birth, a female migrating in by marriage, a death; absent at work, pregnancies and so on.
The entire village assembled for the fete-like occasion. The Village Constable called the name of the head of an extended family who came forward followed by the members; grouped in nuclear families. Names were carefully entered into the book in ink.
I used the Malcolm Wright system: leaving sufficient space between young men’s names to provide for future children, grouped all of a family’s female children immediately under the mother’s name. When she married each female child’s name would be deleted and moved to her husband’s listing.
After I completed the task at Hisiu, Len Dexter, manager of a nearby coconut plantation, picked me up in his vehicle and showed me around the estate. His wife invited me to dinner and they delivered me back to the rest house.
I visited the Aroana sawmill and the desiccated coconut mill—a newish construction with magnificent stainless steel silos and plant. The older traditionalists in the village complained to me about so many of their women folk working, away from home all day, neglecting the gardens, earning cash wages.
They need not have worried; the desiccated coconut factory was a doomed operation. Within a few years, Papuan desiccated coconut was identified as the probable cause of a typhoid outbreak in Australia, and banned as an import.
McKenna handled the next part of our journey, driving us to the Kanosia; the last few kilometres in the gloom of the canopy of rubber trees that the sun itself was unable to penetrate.
McKenna’s house, a twin of the Kairuku ADO’s residence, was also surrounded by rubber trees and sunless. That evening, I learnt that he had been at Kanosia for many years, as assistant manager pre-war and as manager post-war. During the war, he had served in the plantation arm of ANGAU and in the Production Control Board.
I also learnt that his employers, Clarke and Whitley, had made the land application in 1946, and that that there had already been two earlier attempts to finalise it. Patrol Officer FJ (Bill) Driver had spent a day on site in August 1948 and ADO JS (Jock) McLeod had done the same in November 1949.
The compass and chain survey was going to be the hard part. I had been schooled in the procedure at the ASOPA short course but that had been a brief training exercise on a small piece of flat land. The Kanosia task covered a huge, jungle-covered area.
I used a brass 50 mm prismatic compass and a steel measuring tape wound around a canvas hand reel. Papua was still using the Imperial System of measurement and the tape was calibrated in chains (approximately 20 metres) and links (approximately 20 centimetres) and the area I surveyed was measured in acres.
McKenna had never walked around the boundaries, but one of his Papuan overseers, who was also one the landowners, had walked around the area which he thought McKenna had indicated.
The only things that were certain were the starting point and the finishing point, both on the boundary of the existing plantation, and the main road. As for the rest, it was featureless jungle.
The next day, with the overseer as the leader, I set off with the police and a handful of McKenna’s labourers.
The Department of Lands required straight-line boundaries except where a natural feature, such as a river, was more appropriate. The overseer’s proposed boundaries followed bush tracks that meandered through the jungle.
I kept the labourers on a compass bearing as they cut the traverse lie through the scrub, pulling the steel measuring chain until they reached its end.
Then I set them off again on the same bearing. Sometimes we were near the overseer’s track and sometimes we were a long way away from it.
Each afternoon we set up camp, building lean-tos from saplings and palm fronds. We ate reasonably well on boiled rice and game shot during the day.
Four days later, we were back at the road and we were at the designated finishing point. We only got there because the overseer knew his land so well. His sense of direction allowed him to indicate the position of that point from wherever we were. Finally, it was a simple task to chain back along the road to our starting point.
When I arrived back at Kanosia, Kano, a sister ship of Kina, was at the wharf loading rubber for Port Moresby. There was only one passenger, Tom Cole, a crocodile shooter, so, as Malcolm had suggested, I took passage to Port Moresby for my break.
I felt pretty cocky when we arrived in Port Moresby. I had been on patrol on my own and had accomplished all I had been told to do. I walked up the hill from the wharf to the District Office, but instead of the welcome I expected, Mick Healy fixed me with pale-blue eyes, even colder and steelier than normal.
He demanded to know what I was doing in town. Who had authorized my visit. He ignored my explanation, picked up the telephone and ascertained that Kano was loading for Kairuku and west coast ports and sailing at sunset.
He told me to return to the ship, stay on board and sail with it. At least he did not make me walk from Port Moresby to Kairuku.
Back at Kairuku, I took over Tuohy’s room in the Sub-District Office. He and his family had departed to spend three months leave in Australia. For the first time, I had a table and chair, and that chair was something special.
It was made of aircraft quality aluminium and had a padded back and padded arms. A previous patrol officer, onetime Group Captain Gordon Steege DSO DFC, had salvaged it, hacking it and a portion of the floor section to which it was welded from a crashed U.S. B24 Liberator bomber.
I slogged for days at that desk preparing the Kanosia land investigation report, drafting the plan from the chain and compass survey, reproducing the plan at a smaller scale for the Transfer Document and finally drawing up the Land Transfer Document. Those documents were dispatched to Port Moresby, checked by the Department of Lands and accepted.
I spent as many days typing my first patrol report on the only typewriter—a manual Remington. I wasted a lot of paper because of typing mistakes. The five copies made with carbon paper meant that the last copy was almost illegible.
It did not matter, that patrol report disappeared somewhere in the system. Maybe it had something to do with District Officer Healy’s reaction to my arrival in Port Moresby. Maybe he had words with ADO Wright.
Commenting on my next patrol (Kairuku No 5 of 1950-1951), ADO Wright wrote, “This is Mr Brown’s first patrol alone and he has given good attention to all details of a patrol.”
The headquarters’ comments, written over the Director’s name, were less sanguine. They may have been influenced by the author’s long service or he may have had his knickers in a knot. Acting District Commissioner, John Rollo Foldi, who had joined the Papuan administration in 1930, wrote:
“Probably the most important work that a Patrol Officer does in the field is the instruction of Village Councillors in their duties, and his attitude to them as leaders of their people.
"That Mr Brown has not the faintest idea of the work is illustrated by his suggestion that ‘Kaia Towadade, a man of influence,’ be appointed a Councillor, to assist the Village Constable.
“Please ask Mr Brown to write a composition headed ‘Duties and Obligations of a Village Councillor’ and forward it to this office.”
With the Tuohy’s on leave, their house had had become vacant and was now occupied by a young Hungarian couple.
Gyula Harmos had served with the Hungarian forces during World War II and was medically qualified but his medical qualifications were not recognised in Australia.
Like a number of other doctors, he had been seduced by John Gunther’s simple recruitment scheme that was designed to attract doctors to the Territory: “We will recognise your qualifications, we will pay you doctors’ salaries, and we will provide you with married accommodation.”
Gunther’s ultimatum to the outstations was simple: “If you want a doctor you will have to provide the married accommodation!” Married ADOs, especially those with young children, quickly fell into line, and Malcolm Wright was no exception. He gladly made the Patrol Officer’s house available.
There seemed to be new life in the weekends after the arrival of the couple. On Sunday mornings we swam at the beach in front of the parade ground: the Wrights, the Harmos and me. The water was clear; the sand was yellow and crystal. We had the beach, and sea, to ourselves, but we watched carefully for stonefish and kept an eye out for crocodiles.
Gyula Harmos—Julian he called himself—was years older than I. His wife, Maria Teresa, was almost my age; very attractive and even more so in the small two-piece, European bathing costume.
I frequently came back from the beach thinking she made me feel even lonelier. My timeframe of six months “seeing the country” had passed, was it time to pack up and leave?
Once a month, the cement slab behind the ration store became the venue for Brother Celsus, from the De La Salle High School, to screen a 16 millimetre, black-and-white movie.
The Mission selected them carefully. We only saw movies that were classified as suitable for general viewing and even they were heavily censored: no violence, no love scenes and no alcohol.
As Malcolm Wright put it, after watching Mutiny on the Bounty, “Every time Clark Gable got a glint in his eye, a book went over the projector lens, and the screen was blacked out.”
Judge Gore arrived on the government yacht, Laurabada, to hear a serious court case. A Mekeo couple had an argument, the husband struck the wife and she died of a ruptured spleen.
ADO Wright, as Coroner, committed the husband for trial. The ADO’s office became the Supreme Court and the unfortunate husband received a gaol sentence, one year with hard labour. He served his time as my gardener.
He arrived each morning for work dressed in prison garb, a loin cloth emblazoned with broad black arrows, which he quickly set aside, preferring the more casual attire of a sihi (g-string) and leather belt.
At the end of October, a police constable returned from a routine task in the Mekeo and complained that some villagers at Inawi had attempted to steal his rifle. The allegation sounded serious, but it could not have been so as I was sent to investigate.
Baden Wales met me with a tractor on the mainland at Mou. I perched on the rear mudguard, the police and the patrol gear bounced around in the trailer and we rattled down the road to the rice project at Epo (Bereina).
I knew from Baden’s overnight stays in my house that he drank a lot, but I was soon to learn how much. That afternoon it was Rhum Negrita with lime-flavoured water. He did not eat dinner but around mealtime added honey to the mix and, later in the evening, condensed milk.
When I emerged next morning, he was drinking lukewarm tea and condensed milk laced with rum. He was using a towel, draped around his neck, to pull the glass to his mouth.
I spent two days at Inawi village trying to sort out the story about the rifle. It was a large village but the people were adamant that the accusation was not true. They had no use for a rifle.
I thought that, at Kairuku, more experienced minds than mine might solve the problem. Maybe the story would change in a different environment. The spokesman for the people, a young man who claimed to be a chief, Andrew Opu Aipu Maino, decided to accompany me back to Kairuku with the small group of accused.
At Kairuku nobody was interested. I spent another couple of days talking to the police constable and the Mekeo men. Finally, I told them all that I did not believe the constable’s story and I told the Mekeos to go home.
The young chief, Andrew, asked if he could stay and work at the office. He said he wanted to learn about the government. I got approval for his employment, and he also became a friend.
In February and March, it was the time for me to revise the census of the Roro and Bush Mekeo Census Divisions. I avoided some typing by combing two patrols and submitting one report.
Andrew Opu Aipu Maino accompanied me for the whole of that patrol. He explained the Mekeo thinking and customs. We had discussions and arguments.
Chiria was the only village on Yule Island and I started with it. I walked across the island on Thursday, 1 February 1951. I knew most of the younger people and they made it a festive event, even walking with me back to Kairuku to keep me company.
All the other Roro villages were on the mainland and I could visit some of them in groups if I used a launch to drop me off. I then crisscrossed the floodplain using the government ferries—canoes—at Bioto and Rapa to cross the Angabunga and St. Josephs Rivers.
On one occasion, as we drifted downstream heading back towards Kairuku, a crocodile overtook our canoe swimming in the same direction. It was so large and so close that we let it pass even though we had a battery of rifles available.
Opu said that even the name, Bush Mekeo, was meaningless as the people were different from the Mekeo. They spoke a different language, had a different culture, were not artistic, were not as exuberant and were fewer. He clearly thought that they were inferior.
The Bush Mekeo adjoined the Mekeo on the northwest but its thick forests and massive swamps were very different to the alluvial plains.
It was several hours walk from Beipa to Engefa, the first of the Bush Mekeo villages. Most of the journey was through forest and most of the time we walked on tree trunks felled to form a trail above the swamp.
The track to Maipa and Inauakina on following days was much the same, but from there almost all our travel was by canoe on the network of waterways feeding the Akaifu River.
There was a current but the water was so smooth that I could sit on my camp chair and shoot at hornbills and flocks of fruit bats with the .22 rifle I had purloined from the government store.
Our final stop in the Bush Mekeo was at Babanongo on the Inawafunga River. It was a slow 20 kilometres upstream paddle from our previous overnight stop on the Biaru, and we arrived late in the afternoon on Thursday 1 March.
It proved to be a sad stopover for me. The rest house was sited quite close to the river and during the night my Dalmatian dog slipped his collar and chain and was taken by a crocodile.
Boffin had only been in the country for four months. He had to wait in Sydney for a non-pressurised aircraft so had not travelled with me. After that incident, I resolved never to own another dog, a resolve I maintained for another 10 years.
I wanted to get away from Babanongo but work was still to be done so I was stuck there for another day and night. Then we trekked across the 100-metre high Inapi Ridge to the coast at Kivori-Kui.
Another hour’s walk along the beach brought us to Waima, where there were fast sailing canoes. We needed three.
Although we were only 25 kilometres from Kairuku in a straight line, we needed a long tack out to sea, almost out of the sight of land, across the prevailing wind. With all sails set, most of the crew stood on the outrigger to balance it just above the waves, never allowing the canoe to overturn.
Opu said that all the Mekeo chiefs were hereditary. I had learnt at ASOPA that only in the Trobiand Islands were there hereditary chiefs and that elsewhere there were ‘big men’.
The anthropologists had taught us that those ‘big men’ were leaders who attained their status by deeds and not by inheritance but I could not convince Opu that he was wrong.
Years later, the anthropologists admitted they had it wrong and that the Mekeo, Roro, Fuyuge and many other groups had a firmly established hereditary chieftainship systems.
Opu also had a completely different view about sorcerers. I had been told they were aggressive and evil and that they killed people.
He said the sorcerer’s main role was to protect the village from outside evils and that he was only secondary in status to the chief.
Bishop Louis Vangeke at his investiture in Sydney in December 1970 by Pope Paul was quoted as saying, “I am the sorcerer of God”, and during his subsequent installation as a Mekeo chief at Beipa the dignitaries of the church were guarded and protected by two sorcerers from Beipa and Aipiana.
Andrew Opu Aipu Maino’s appointment as an Officer in the Order of the British Empire was notified in the London Gazette of 31 December 1980, the citation reading, “For public service as a magistrate and as Ombudsman.” He hosted a luncheon for me at the Travelodge in Port Moresby in October 1984.
Opu’s female relatives and his son visit him at Kairuku, March 1951
Bill Brown at the Sub-District Office, Kairuku, December 1950, sitting in the aircraft seat salvaged by Patrol Officer Gordon Steege. A section of the aircraft frame is visible at ankle height. Boffin, the Dalmatian, in attendance
The gaol inmate who became my gardener in working attire: neck tie, leather belt with brass buckle, sihi and armbands. None of this was authorised prison garb
My friend Andrew Opu Aipu Maino
Crossing the river at the Roro village of Rapa. Ferrymen received an increase in salary in August 1948 being paid fifteen shillings a month and a supply of rations for one person
Travelling through the swampy section of forest on log trails in the Bush Mekeo. The trees have been felled to allow travel between villages and gardens
Opu, son and wife at Kairuku, March 1951
In Babangongo village (left to right) police constable, Andrew Opu Aipu Maino sporting a full head of hair, Bill Brown and two Babangongo village officials. The rest house is in the rear on the right; the crawl-in kitchen in the rear on the left. The leaking roofs of both buildings have been temporarily repaired with coconut palm fronds