“There is a crisis in the writing and teaching of Papua New Guinea history. It is created by the real gap between what is being made available through publication and the needs and demands for a truly autonomous and indigenous history.
“Put in the simplest terms, writers of history continue largely to publish histories dealing with foreigners, or at best, with relations between foreigners and Papua New Guineans or with actions and achievements of Papua New Guineans within a framework of foreign endeavours.
“But the educated and literate minority demands a history which makes known to them their own historical roots in the precolonial past, a history which is about their own people” - Rod Lacey 1981
Image: Dwyer & Leahy 1930. Ewunga is fourth from left in middle row
TUMBY BAY - In 1930 gold prospectors Mick Leahy and Michael Dwyer followed the Markam River and crossed the gap to the Ramu River valley. They then worked their way along several highland rivers, panning for gold, before descending the Purari River to the Papuan Gulf.
Ewunga Goiba, a Waria Valley man from the Morobe Province, accompanied them with a small band of warriors. The bosboi and his clansmen provided protection for the prospectors, organised carriers for them and acted as intermediaries with the new groups they met.
Leahy kept a diary of this trip. From the diary it is easy to see how the success of the trip was very much dependent upon the Waria men. It is also easy to understand how Waria men later disproportionally filled the ranks of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary.
In his diary Leahy recorded his meetings with many different highland groups and their reactions to seeing the white men for the first time. It was important to Leahy and Dwyer that these encounters were as friendly as possible because they were relying on them for food and safe passage.
It is a fascinating account in its own right but there are other aspects to these meetings that he did not and could not have recorded.
One of the groups the prospectors encountered puzzled them because their reception was unlike any of the others they had experienced.
These were the Daribi clans living in the foothills of Mount Karimui near the southern boundary of what is now Simbu Province.
These people showed no surprise in meeting the prospectors and, unlike all the other groups, they refused to trade for food. Leahy described them as sullen and unapproachable. This annoyed him no end because he was running short of food.
In the end the prospectors left, scratching their heads about this uncharacteristic and unfriendly encounter.
What Leahy and Dwyer didn’t know was that the Daribi had a culture hero called Souw who had predicted their coming and the dire consequences that would follow.
Daribi history says that one of their ancestors had inadvertently stumbled upon Souw while he was having intercourse and had angered him no end. In retribution he had promised to one day find them and visit his revenge.
What Leahy and Dwyer didn’t know was that their arrival was seen by the Daribi as the fulfilment of Souw’s threat.
The prospectors were big men with fair skins accompanied by fierce dogs, just like Souw. They also appeared able to change their skins like Souw.
In their attempts to trade for food Leahy and Dwyer sought to demonstrate the utility of the steel axes they were offering in exchange by cutting down several large trees.
For the Daribi this seemed like the fulfilment of Souw’s revenge. The prospectors were seen to be cutting down the very columns that held up the sky. For the Daribi this looked like a disaster and the end of time. It took them many years to get over the visit.
Leahy and Dwyer were probably lucky. It is entirely possible that the Daribi might have attempted to defend themselves against what they perceived as Souw, his companion and their ferocious dogs. If they had been attacked the prospectors wouldn’t have had a clue about why.
It is also entirely possible that Ewunga and his men had talked with the Daribi and convinced them not to attack. When he later recorded his memories Ewunga didn’t mention this possibility.
What this incident demonstrates is that there are often several ways to interpret an historical event.
There is the objective traditional historic account and there is the oral history account. In most cases these two, often disparate, accounts are never brought together so that, in effect, only half of a historic event is recorded.
For Papua New Guinean history it is important that the two are meshed. Otherwise they cannot be properly understood.
Denoon, D. & Lacey, R. (eds), Oral Tradition in Melanesia, The University of Papua New Guinea & The Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, Port Moresby, 1981.
Leahy, M. J., Explorations into Highland New Guinea 1930-1935, (Edited by D. E. Jones), Crawford House Press, Bathurst, 1994.