I really don’t know what the Lutheran missionary Wilhelm Bergmann (1899-1987) thought of us wild boys down on the outstation. He was 65 when I landed in the Chimbu in January 1964 and he’d been there since 1931, one of the first white men into the central highlands of New Guinea.
Occasionally he’d wander down to the kunai radio shack near the airstrip, a tall and slightly stooped man who never really fraternised with us government officers. And I never saw his wife, Louise, although his daughter, Irmgard, was a nursing sister at Kundiawa hospital - a serene and pleasant woman, who would never join our parties but escape to the mission on the hill each evening.
Now it turns out – and I have Peter Salmon to thank for this – that Gabriele Richter of the University of Rostock in Germany has access to Wilhelm Bergmann’s 10 volumes of diaries and other texts he wrote about his time in New Guinea from 1928 to 1968.
In these volumes Bergmann describes situations of ‘first contact’, when the Western and Chimbu worlds collided and it was not yet determined how power between the two would be divided. Gabriele Richter writes: “In his autobiography, these moments appear as decisive experiences for him.” She says the Christian missions were not ‘innocent enterprises’ that eschewed power conflict and Bergmann’s writings tell how, step by step, he accumulated power and related it to religion.
Ms Richter will present a forum on Bergmann at the Australian National University on Tuesday 27 November between 11 am and noon. If you’re interested in attending, call Oanh Collins on 02 6125 3106.
Photo: Kundiawa from the air, Wikipedia