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05 October 2015


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Daniel, it was good to read of the other side of the contract labour scheme that plantation expats used to their financial advantage.

Possibly 1972, I think, I was sitting with other kiaps in Taskul one day when we heard on the radio that the government was going to introduce cash wages in lieu of the wages-in-kind that was part of the contract till then.

With us was Jim White a long term Pommie planter, trader and ship owner who, when I first met him, I thought was an Ozzie because having been up in Wau pre-WW2; then fought with Australian Infantry in North Africa moved to ANGAU as the Japanese war ended and got a clutch of plantations on Lavongai Island - so that by my time he sounded like a dinkie-di Australian, certainly not a Pommie.

Anyway Jim almost spilt his cold-one as he exploded, “That's the bloody end of me then!” Or words to that effect.

He later explained to me that fortnightly, under the now soon to end scheme, he would pay his 'contracts' with some basic items such as soap, rice, tin fish, ti-lif but especially black sticks of 'Muruk' tobacco plus occasional tee-shirt and some 'Rami' - laplap as we of the New Guinea side called the forty odd inches of cheap Hong Kong material that nearly everyone was then wearing round their waists.

I think there was a tiny cash payment to purchase odd and ends from the plantation's own store.

Gradually Jim and his fellow planters saw their lines of indentured labourers 'pinis-taim' and depart the islands for the long trip home - three ocean trips for them as most were not flown home.

For the Tari and Kopiago, it would then mean a long dusty bumpy ride up the Highway. Many of these mostly young men proudly carried their small red wooden box in which were the material rewards for their two years or longer contracts.

Each also had an official copy of a government form that entitled them to collect a small cash reward from their home area's district cash office. This small cash payment was a legal requirement for each employer to provide under the scheme.

Of course many young men, as Daniel states, couldn't resist the beauty of the island girls and so decided not to go home at 'pinis-taim' but pay a tiny brideprice to marry and raise families.

By the seventies there was a scattering of 'redskins', as the darker islanders called these Highlanders or Sepiks, throughout Lavongai with children who would never see their father's home area.

Particularly as the island follows a matrilineal land inheritance system so the clan affiliations of the father were of almost non-importance. So it didn't matter that I was an outsider when I too married locally.

Jim didn't like the cash wages idea because it meant he would have to now increase the percentage of locally hired workers, “and that's not the best Arthur,” he explained.

“It means that I never know who will turn up for work because someone will always have a funeral, brideprice ceremony or other customary duty to perform rather than work. Hell I've had workers who have apparently buried their grand-dad three times over the years! My old contracts never gave me that problem.”

From that momentous change in plantation wage regime Jim would never bother to do extra horticultural jobs on his numerous plantations.

Some seven years later I temporarily worked one of his smaller ones and found his once very fruitful cocoa trees had been unpruned for a very long time.

I personally pruned many of them to the delight of the next itinerant manger who benefitted from my hard work that had provided him with bumper flushes of ripe pods.

The waste of time pruning idea was obliviously also shared by a couple of ex-contracts who had married locally were squatting inside the boundary of the plantation. They had harvested over the years from the sometimes decaying overgrown trees.

I recall having brief arguments with one who claimed the cocoa beans he wanted to sell me were from his own trees that he had planted in anticipation of Masta White never coming to inspect the place.

My antagonist told me one of the reasons for his squatting was to be near to the matmat where a couple of his wantoks had died while working for Jim.

While managing the Catholic Mission's three south coast copra/cocoa plantations on Lavongai I had a few pinis-taim workers who had married locally too.

The last of the batch was a Menyamya convicted sorcerer.... “I was only getting the jawbone from his body in the new grave to make some magic" he once told me.

He was proud owner of #1 mark on his five daily sacks. He was fantastic worker – every day he would provide 5 x 100lbs shelled or Ceylon copra, we didn't use the finger cutting method.

Towards dusk I would see him set off with his bags for the block he would work in tomorrow. Soon you would see anti-mosquito smoke arising from burning coconut fronds near the spots where he was loading his drai-nuts into heaps.

He never made use of the plantation's store dinau book which many of my workers used to exist for the last few days of the second week of a fortnight when their meagre wages dwindled.

I was a help to him in several ways sometime later when he decided to woo and win a no longer young women from inland Lavongai. Even took a few polaroid pix of the pig and traditional money he used to buy the lady and especially of the small block just off the plantation land that he had paid for traditionally.

One of these photos would come in handy some years later when another pinis-taim, wantok, married locally too, wanted to claim the land after my old worker had died.

Another character known on my roll books as Peter-Sepik a very strong tall labourer no prizes for guessing his expat given name.

One memorable afternoon he came to the store at the end of the day asking for an aspirin. When enquired if he had fever he replied, “Nogat boss, wanpela drain emi pundaun long het bilong mi!” I was amazed as he had apparently continued for several hours after the nut had fallen from tall maturing palm ... enough to kill you.

But Peter's very strong bald head - in the village he was known as Peter-Kela (Peter the bald) - had luckily protected him safely. He suffered no other effects from what could have been a fateful meeting with death.

One week the Bishop had sent a tok-savi for anyone interested to work at his distant Rakunda Plantation in the Duke of Yorks, any volunteers must assemble on the beach in Metekavil.

On Sunday morning MV Margaret anchored in our bay and several men said farewell to their wives etc. I noticed a commotion as Peter's lame wife cried in sorrow at seeing her breadwinner wanting to get in the dinghy to be taken out to the ship. He eventually managed to loosen his distraught wife's hold on his arm and left her behind.

Much to the villagers amusement she wouldn't stop wailing as the ship stared moving out of sight and cried a plaintiff “Peter!” many times as she walked along the bush track paralleling its eastwards voyage.

Her pleas were answered as apparently the vessel was late in reaching Kavieng and the recruits from elsewhere had already departed on a Rabaul bound ship. With great relief her Peter-Kela came home to her and rejoined my workers the next fortnight.

Anyway Daniel, inap pastaim no-gut mi maus wara. Thanks for jogging my brain cells back to many moments with lots of pinis-taim I have known.

I like this one Daniel. Great story. Thanks.

Ahahahah! Daniel truly I am laughing, I am happy now...I wasn't well 2 hours ago...Beautiful story.

Thanks Daniel.
Great story, great writing.
Keep writing.
PNG social history, worth collecting.

Terrific piece Daniel.

The architects of the Highlands Labour Scheme would be pleased to hear that it had the sociological impact that they had planned for it, as well as meeting the economic need for labour.

A lot of people didn't like the scheme: they thought it amounted to a thinly disguised form of slavery.

Despite this, it was hugely popular and, during my time in the Southern Highlands, and I can recall many plane loads of new recruits heading off to Lae or Madang, while the returnees came back with ideas about becoming a bisnis man.

Whatever its faults or merits, the scheme opened up a new world for many highlanders as your article so beautifully illustrates.

It is a shame that you only discovered PNG Attitude in February this year Daniel.

If you had discovered it earlier we would have been able to enjoy your entertaining and informative articles for a lot longer.

Still, plenty of time to catch up.

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