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Jim Sinclair OBE, recorder of PNG's colonial history, dies at 89

Jim Sinclair & Pami  Lake Kopiago  c 1952
Jim Sinclair and Pami, Lake Kopiago, c 1952


NOOSA – James (Jim) Sinclair OBE, 89, the famed post-war kiap and prolific author of Papua New Guinea’s history, especially that of colonial times since World War II, died just after midnight yesterday at Sunshine Coast University Hospital in Queensland.

He had contracted a severe form of influenza which was subsequently compounded by pneumonia and other complications.

James Patrick Sinclair was born in Dubbo, NSW, on 18 April 1928. He attended Dubbo High School, Sydney Grammar School and the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) in Sydney.

In November 1947, he joined the Department of District Services and Native Affairs in the Administration of what was then the Territory of Papua and New Guinea.

After attending an orientation course at ASOPA he travelled to PNG in August 1948 as a cadet patrol officer and served on many outposts as he progressed through the field officer ranks.

Between 1969 and 1974, he was the last Australian district commissioner presiding over what is now Eastern Highlands Province.

Sinclair conducted extensive exploratory and pacification patrols in Morobe and the Southern Highlands, opening the Koroba station in 1955, the Lake Kopiago base camp in 1956 and exploring then uncontrolled areas as far as the Strickland River.

Jim Sinclair (George Oakes)In 1959 he married Janece (Jan) Marie McGrath and they had three children. In an important way, Sinclair owed his later career as a successful author to Jan.

Also in 1959, he was appointed as officer in charge of the Wau sub-district, later serving in similar roles in Finschhafen and Lae before moving to the Eastern Highlands in 1968 as district commissioner.

Sinclair retired in 1975 around the time of Papua New Guinea’s independence and embarked on his second career, becoming a full-time author and a prolific recorder of PNG history.

His first book, ‘Behind the Ranges’, had been published some years earlier in 1966 and told of his exploratory patrols in Morobe and the Southern Highlands. His publishing oeuvre ultimately grew to comprise nearly 40 books (see bibliography below) - a considerable contribution to an understanding of this important period in the development of PNG.

Sinclair was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1992, an honorary doctorate from the Australian National University in 1999 and a Companion in the Order of the Star of Melanesia in 2008.

Jim Sinclair on patrol (still from 'New Guinea Patrol')
"Jim Sinclair was our leader...." - still from the 1958 documentary film, 'New Guinea Patrol'

“We were so fortunate to have Jim Sinclair among us,” said Peter Salmon, publisher of the Ex Kiap website.

Fellow kiap turned author Phil Fitzpatrick said: “Jim acted as a kind of focus point for kiaps. He was a quiet, gentle man; very humble”.

“Jim was one of nature’s gentlemen,” Peter Brindley, who served under him in the Eastern Highlands in 1970, told the Ex Kiap website. “The world is a lesser place now.”

“One of the old school,” said Ross Johnson. “His passing represents the end of an era. "Rest in peace, my friend, bihain bi mi lukim yu.”

Long time PNG resident Rob Parer CMG OBE observed that “Jim was certainly PNG’s man of letters. He wrote such complete accounts of so many diverse subjects. Thousands of pages."

And Parer disclosed how close Papua New Guinea and Australia had come to being denied Sinclair's chronicles. “A short time after she married him, Jan said she saw him tearing up a huge pile of sheets of paper held together by long bolts," Parer said. 

"When she asked him what he was doing, Jim said ‘just some stuff I've written and everyone in New Guinea writes stuff.'

"Jan stopped him, and the rest is history,” Parer added.

Behind the RangesSelect Bibliography

Behind the Ranges: Patrolling in New Guinea, Melbourne University Press, 1966.

The Outside Man: Jack Hides of Papua, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1969 (reprinted 1971)

Sepik Pilot: Wing Commander Bobby Gibbes DSO, DFC and Bar, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1971 (reprinted 1977)

The Highlanders, Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1973 (reprinted 1980)

Wigmen of Papua, Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1973

Faces of New Guinea, Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1973

The Arts of Papua New Guinea, Robert Brown & Associates, Port Moresby, 1977.

Colourful Papua New Guinea, Robert Brown & Associates, Port Moresby, 1977

Wings of Gold: How the Aeroplane Developed New Guinea, Pacific Publications, Sydney, 1978 (reprinted 1983)

Up From South, by Jack O’Neill with notes and background by James Sinclair. Oxford  University Press, 1979

Cape York to Coolangatta, Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1981

KiapKiap: Australia’s Patrol Officers in Papua New Guinea, Pacific Publications, Sydney, 1981 (reprinted 1983

South Pacific Brewery, Robert Brown & Associates, Bathurst, 1983

Uniting a Nation: The Telecommunication and Postal Services of Papua New Guinea, Oxford University Press, Sydney, 1984

Papua New Guinea: The First 100 Years, Robert Brown & Associates, Bathurst, 1985 (reprinted 1989)

Balus: The Aeroplane in Papua New Guinea. Vol One: The Early Years, Robert Brown & Associates, Bathurst, 1986

Balus: The Aeroplane in Papua New Guinea. Vol Two: The Rise of Talair, Robert Brown & Associates, Bathurst, 1988

Balus: The Aeroplane in Papua New Guiea. Vol Three: Wings of a Nation, Robert Brown& Associates, Bathurst, 1990

Last Frontiers: The Explorations of Ivan Champion of Papua, Pacific Press, Gold Coast, 1988

To Find A PathTo Find a Path: The Life and Times of the Royal Pacific Islands Regiment. Vol One:

Yesterday’s Heroes 1885-1950, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 1990

To Find a Path: Vol Two: Keeping the Peace 1945-1975, Crawford House Press, Bathurst, 1992

South Pacific: The Games of 1990, Crawford House Press, Bathurst, 1991

PTC: Uniting a Nation Through the 1980’s, Crawford House Press, Bathurst, 1993.

The Money Tree: Coffee in Papua New Guinea, Crawford House Press, Bathurst, 1995

Golden Gateway: Lae and the Province of Morobe, Crawford House Press, Bathurst, 1998

MastaMak: The Land Surveyors of Papua New Guinea, Crawford House Publishing, Adelaide, 2001

The Papua Club, Crawford House Publishing, Adelaide, 2002

GavamaniMadang. Divine Word University Press, Madang, 2005

Steamships Trading Company, Alan Caudell & Associates, Cairns, 2008

Gavamani: The Magisterial Service of British New Guinea, Crawford House Publishing, Adelaide, 2009

Mr B: The Life and Times of Sir Brian Bell, Alan Caudell & Associates, Cairns, 2010

Diwai: A History of Divine Word University, 2013

The Middle Kingdom – a major history of the Highlands Districts of PNG from the beginnings to Independence, Crawford House Publishing, Adelaide, 2014

The Creek: Edie Creek and the Morobe goldfield [publisher unknown]


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Magdalyn Tikana Yangoino

RIP Mr Jim Sinclair, once a kiap in Bulolo/Wau are in Morobe Province. Working hand in hand with Mr George Bushunan as a Mines Warden they both became great friends to my grandfather, Mataiko Yangoino.

Mr Sinclair presented my grandfather with a Mining Certificate.

Thank you Sinclair for your service in my area. Mike Sinclair I'd be much happier if we get in touch.

Robbie Kebaya

Jim Sinclair left behind writings for future generations to look back and see what life was like prior to discovery. His early patrols and and the books written are from my region and it gives the reader a look into what life was like back then. Thank you Jim Sinclair, may your soul rest in peace.

Janice Woodburne (Plane)

Well Jan, I just came across these messages and now realise what you and Jim spent your life doing since I last saw you two.

We were in Wau all those years ago and your eldest son was born about three months before mine. That was 1960. Which makes these 'boys' almost 60 now.

Jim was the ADO and my husband, Mike, was running the Mines Office in the village. I seem to remember Jim was away a lot on patrol.

Do you remember the PO at that time, a young fellow, who married a school mate of mine and you and Jim hosted their reception in your garden.

I remember a story Jim used to tell about meeting you for the first time. He had just walked out of the bush and there you were at the small school with your students. She was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, I heard him say. What a nice beginning.

We were in Wau for five years and then went to Berkeley to pursue an additional degree in palaeontology. Certainly a different direction from yours but a fascinating one all the same.

I'm happy to hear Jim is out of misery after being in poor health. If only we could all just continue but that's not the way it goes. So sorry for your loss and I know you have a stack of wonderful memories.

David Miner

The late James Sinclair's new book, 'Up the Creek', has been published in limited numbers (mine is No 239 of 650 copies). It is produced by Pictorial Press Australia. Their telephone number is (07) 3716 0104.

Posted price is $60.

Ken Gorton

Hi Janece,
If this gets to you, I have just found out that Jim died in 2017. I was reading a book that mentioned him and found the website that told of his passing. I have lived happily married in Cairns for the last 55 years. Condolences and best wishes.

Biga Lebasi

I need to ask permission to do a very belated review of the James Sinclair book 'Mr B - The Life and Times of Sir Brian Bell' and I am not sure who to write to.

Would you be able to help me?

Elizabeth Dumu

Is this the same Jim (James) Sinclair who authored "MR B"- The Life and Times of Sir Brian Bell?

Philip Fitzpatrick

Quite a few of Jim's books were commissioned by the companies that he wrote about and had a limited circulation. I suspect that 'Lihir Destiny' is one of those.

Lihir is owned by Newcrest. Try contacting their media boffin, James Porteous at email:

John Douglas

Does any one Know where I can obtain a copy of "Lihir Destiny" one of the last books Jim wrote. I have seen a copy of the cover posted on the internet at an identified conference, so know it exists but i cannot find a source of supply.
John Douglas
Port Moresby

Ormond (Orm) Grace

James Sinclair was a passenger in my Talair aircraft in the PNG highlands in the early 1970's. A gentleman who will be sadly missed.

Rob Parer

I am wondering if anyone has any more information about Jim Sinclair’s last book 'The Creek'. Jim had told me it was due to be published in Hong Kong.

I did get a a message from publisher Tony Crawford to say It hasn’t been published and that Arthur Jones has the rights and he was looking for a publisher.

Tony said, “All I can suggest is just keep your ear to the ground.”

Rob Parer

Re Jim Sinclair’s last book “ The Creek “ ...Sadly I have just received a message from Tony of Crawfords to say It hasn’t been published. Arthur Jones has the rights and I believe he is looking for a publisher…Tony said “ All I can suggest is just keep your ear to the ground.”
SO THAT IS SUCH BAD NEWS.Jim slaved long & hard through his years of illness & he was excited when he finished it.THANK YOU JIM WE ALL OWE YOU BIG TIME.

Will Muskens

I was very fortunate to have worked under Jim Sinclair, first as a PO at Kalolo Patrol Post in 1962 when he was ADO Finschhafen, and then from 1971 to 1975 as ADC Goroka when Jim was District Commissioner of the Eastern Highlands.

Jim was a fine administrator who demanded a high standard of service delivery to the people, a forthright and inspirational leader much esteemed by the people in the communities he served.

It would be fair to say that Jim Sinclair was in the same league as another famous Kiap from a previous generation – the legendary J K McCarthy, and arguably the last of the “Outside Men”, that very special group of Australian explorers that endured considerable hardship and deprivation (not to mention danger) leading government patrols into the previously uncontrolled and unexplored interior of the New Guinea mainland.

Jim was “a kiaps’ kiap” and I am really sad that he is no longer with us, but his memory will always remain alive through his extensive photographic and published works.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I'm after a copy of the Edie Creek book too Tony.

Also 'The Papua Club'and the history of Divine Word.

Anyone know where copies of 'Mr B' can be had?

Rob Parer

I see Tony Crawford has posted an item & I sent his company an email last night before I saw his post.

Hope you can help please Tony.

Dear Sir/Madam,

I would like to purchase “The Creek “ ( Edie Creek and the Morobe goldfield. )by James Sinclair by Crawford House Publishing, Adelaide, 2015.

On your website I see that on line ordering is not possible so how do I order. Please advise ?

I had been in touch with Jim Sinclair for years while he was writing it and gave him information he was going to use. My mother & father - Mollie & Bob Parer - were gold mining at Black Cat in 1933 and at Edie Creek 1934 to 1937.

Jan his wife did not think he would finish it as he has been so sick for some years.So when he published it he told me that it was on the way from Hong Kong and I have been trying ever since to find a copy.

Today I tried again - Abe Books - Amazon Books - - Book Depository 11 Million Titles - ( 2 Million Books )- BookTopia & all nil results.Extraordinary!

I could not find the ISBN which may have helped.

Anna Omba

Rest in Peace gentle giant. PNG will always remember you.

Neil Whiting MBE

Papua New Guinea is so much richer in recorded history due to the wonderful books written by Jim.

I met him in the Post Courier library while researching information for my book "Wreck & Reefs - Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea". He was researching another of his books.

I again met him in September 2003 during the launch of his book on the history of the Papua Club.

Thank you Jim, rest in peace.

Tony Crawford

We will all miss Jim. He was definitely the world authority on PNG history.

I first met him in the 1970s whilst I was working at the PNG National Museum, when he was after some photographs for one his early books on the art of PNG.

We built up a wonderful rapport as publisher and author, that lasted till that last day.

His superb photography and knowledge on PNG instilled a valuable history in many people worldwide: academics, historians, travellers, and those who lived in PNG during the 'good old times'.

It was what he wrote that perhaps helped toward providing a greater PNG identity, "...PNG is not in South America or Africa as many thought".

Jan, enjoy the party to celebrate the man that contributed so much to Pacific history.

Mike Sinclair (Jim's youngest son)

A tribute to the life of Jim Sinclair

At about 0015 in the early morning of Monday 9 October, Jim passed away peacefully in his sleep, in hospital on the Sunshine Coast. He had been unwell for some years.

There will be a tribute to Jim’s life held on Tuesday 17 October between 1200-1500, at the Maroochy Surf Club.

The address is:

34/36 Alexandra Parade
Maroochydore QLD 4558
Tel (07)5443 1298

Bob Cleland

Yes, Arnold, research was his strongpoint. He was meticulous. I'll miss him.

Jan, please accept my commiseration.

Chips Mackellar

There's a Patrol Post up there in the sky, above the sea near Lae.
Nor'nor West of Samarai, South-East of Hansa Bay.
It has palm trees waving in the moon, where mosquitoes sting at night,
And canoes out on the blue lagoon, awaiting fish to bite.

It smells of kunai in the rain, and smoke from the valley floor,
And you'll hear the pounding surf again, on the reef beyond the shore.
It's the place where all the kiaps go, when their life on earth is through,
And they talk with all the friends they know, of the things they used to do.

They talk of all the times now past, and of places far away,
And of all the memories that last, of Independence Day.
They talk of sights and sounds and smells, and of people they all knew,
Of bugle calls and mission bells, of garamut and kundu,

Of days gone by in Samarai, and windswept coray cays,
Of tribal fights and freezing nights, and misty Highland days.
Of black-palm floors and tidal bores, and life on the River Fly,
The Kavieng Club and the Bottom Pub, and a thirst you couldn't buy,

Of carrier loads and Highland roads, at the time when we were there,
Of bailer-shell pearls and Trobriand girls, with flowers in their hair.
And when we say good-bye to you, don't mourn us when we go,
For the Big DC will call us too, and this of course we know.

That last patrol will take us all. along that well worn track,
But the difference with this final call, is that we won't be coming back.
And our parting should not cause you pain. It's not sad for us to die,
For we shall all soon meet again, in that Paptrol Post in the sky.

Farewell Jim, we'll meet again, in that Patrol Post in the sky.

-- Chips Mackellar

Arnold Mundua

Of all the expatriate authors who have written about PNG, this man was my favourite.

His well researched books accompanied by amazing historical photographs will be around for a long while and will serve as perfect history books for the future generation.

His name in PNG will live through many generations through his books.

May his soul rest in eternal peace.

Rob Parer

This honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from ANU in 1999 was early in his list of published books. So he was truly PNG's man of letters.

Citation relating to Sinclair's honorary degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa from the ANU: "Sinclair was a patrol officer in Papua New Guinea (1948-1975) and a author of 27 books on the history of Papua New Guinea."

`Daniel Kumbon

I have a copy of one of late James Sinclair's book 'Sepik Pilot' the story of how a WW2 veteran, Bobby Gibbs started an airline company.

I still remember four or five different planes parked on the Kandep airstrip at any one time for a couple days bringing in engineers and parts to fix a Gibbs Sepik Airways Norseman which broke down sometime in the 60s.

The pictures in the book helped me identify the types of planes that flew into Kandep in those days. We school pupils would go over to the strip to see how the huge machine was taken apart, resembled, tested again and again until it was flown away.

Jim Sinclair's passing signals the end of an era when all those early trailblazers - pilots, kiaps, planters, traders and missionaries - friends of PNG are going one by one until there are no more stars left in the heavens except memories.

May the soul of this remarkable man rest in eternal peace.

John K Kamasua

May his soul rest in eternal peace!

Max Phin

Rest in peace, a true friend of Papua New Guinea!

Bernard Corden

Jim was a close friend of my late brother Ron who was company secretary with SP Brewery during the 1970s.
The book features the SP promotional event taking Jumbo the Elephant up the Highlands Highway, which is still used to recognise birth dates as before or after Jumbo.

William Dunlop

Peter Brindley says it all.

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