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Those PNG colonial conflicts: a short examination of killing

Rabaul press clipCHRIS OVERLAND

ADELAIDE - Mathias Kin has written about the killing of Simbu warriors by kiaps in the period from around 1935 to the mid-1950s. He has put forward the claims of various informants about the numbers who died in these clashes - and I have expressed reservations about the scale of the killing in a comment attached to the same article.

Perhaps the minds of some readers, this has left the impression that I am bent on preserving the reputations of the kiaps involved in the pacification of the Papua New Guinea highlands. This is not true, but I have to accept that it is what some people will think.

As it happens, I think the work that Mathias is doing in compiling his ‘History of Simbu’, is important. It will give a voice to those who were hitherto voiceless and, most importantly, it is history as understood by the powerless, not the powerful. So what he is doing is commendable.

That said, it is fair and reasonable to subject the claims he makes to close scrutiny. The powerless are no more or less capable of distorting history to meet their needs than the powerful, although the latter have most of the opportunities to do so.

So, I thought I might write something on the history and logistics of killing because it will, I think, shed some light upon both Mathias's claims and my and others responses to those claims.

Human beings have a long and lamentable history of killing one another. It is a talent that we have honed to near perfection over the years. Huge resources have been and continue to be devoted to the design, construction and use of devices solely intended for killing other people.

In the course of many centuries of warfare, we humans have also become adept at the use of killing as a political tool. Having a reputation as a merciless killer is a really useful way to terrify people into submission to your will without the necessity of actually killing anyone.

This form of terror was a tool of trade for Genghis Khan or Julius Caesar. If it failed them, then they unleashed their armies and inflicted mass murder upon those who had the temerity to resist them. In this way both almost certainly killed many hundreds of thousands of people, if not the millions sometimes claimed.

The early European imperialists were no less ruthless. Cortes subdued the Aztecs in what is now Mexico through the use of fire and sword, greatly assisted by disease as well. In a somewhat similar way, Robert Clive subdued the Indian sub-continent and brought it under British control.

Neither scrupled to use the superior technologies and knowledge of warfare that they possessed to crush those who opposed them. Both became wealthy and famous as a consequence.

So, there is a well established record of European colonialists using killing as a means of imposing their will upon the indigenous people of the countries they invaded. In this sense, what happened in PNG was consistent with the patterns of the past.

So, how did Australia go about asserting control over PNG and how was it different to, say, the behaviour of the British in Africa or in Australia and New Zealand for that matter?

Firstly, the Australian administration was not given an army to carry out the pacification task. Instead, it relied upon a handful of tough, resilient and resourceful ‘outside men’ like Jack Hides, Ivan Champion, Charles Karius and JK McCarthy to undertake long and difficult exploratory patrols through the largely unknown interior.

After the war, others like the Leahy brothers, Jim Taylor, Des Clancy, Ron Neville and Bill Brown went on to build on and consolidate this work of their earlier colleagues.

A mere handful of patrol officers could not have done this on their own. The support of indigenous police officers, interpreters and other support staff was invaluable and critical to the ability of this small number of men to impose administrative control on the many tribes, creating the basis of government and commerce in the new nation.

New Guinea warfareThe early patrol officers were, inevitably in the circumstances, confronted with armed resistance. After all, why should Papua New Guineans have passively accepted the imposition of rule by what was, after all, a foreign power?

The administration put in place policies about how and under what circumstances potentially deadly force could be used by patrols. The patrol officers knew these rules and also knew they could and would be held to account for the use of such force, whether through administrative scrutiny or the courts.

The principle weapon used by patrol officers and police was the Lee Enfield .303 calibre rifle. This is a bolt action weapon with a five-shot cartridge attached. A competent rifleman could fire 20 to 30 aimed shots in one minute. With an effective range of 500 metres, the Lee Enfield was a tremendously powerful weapon.

That said, it was quite heavy at four kilograms and nearly 1.3 metres long, so rapid deployment required training and a degree of deftness.

I need to discuss how this weapon was used operationally. This is important because it will, I hope, shed light on why I and others are so sceptical about supposed incidents of large scale killing.

Firstly, it needs to be understood that any battle involving guns is a frenetic not to say panicked exchange of fire by people who are usually frightened, frequently moving and always trying to stay alive.

So the idea that carefully aimed shots are used in combat is mistaken (except for snipers but they are used differently). Exerting effective control of the battle space is very difficult in such circumstances.

Second, conflicts at very close range are especially confronting. There is frequently a tremendous amount of noise and confusion and the often devastating results of your foe’s and your own shooting become immediately apparent.

Third, because of the fear, movement and uproar, many of the bullets hit no-one. In the battle of Long Tan in Vietnam, for example, the end result of hours of close combat between 108 Australian troops and around 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers was 18 Australians dead and 24 wounded, while the Vietnamese suffered at least 245 dead with an indeterminate but much higher number wounded.

Bear in mind that these casualties were incurred during the course of repeated attacks mounted by Vietnamese troops against Australian troops hiding behind rubber trees or in shallow depressions in the ground.

Given that all these soldiers were armed with weapons at least as powerful as a Lee Enfield rifle, the casualties may seem disproportionately light. They aren't of course. It is just that what soldiers call "the fog of battle" ensures that being killed or wounded is as much a matter of chance as anything else.

This background is relevant to any study of fighting between patrols and local warriors. The circumstances of such encounters are highly significant.

For example, a sudden ambush will potentially result in many shots being fired but few being well aimed. The attackers have a temporary advantage in this situation and cause the most casualties amongst the ambushed in the first few seconds of the fight. After that, the force able to concentrate the most firepower will gain the upper hand.

A more controlled engagement where, for example, a patrol fires a few warning shots in an effort to deter attackers, means that those being attacked are much better prepared. If the attackers persist, then aimed shots can be unleashed very rapidly. Such engagements will be very deadly for the attackers.

Imagine for a moment that you are a Simbu warrior threatening a patrol which has intruded onto your land. You approach the patrol, yelling loudly and waving your spear or preparing to shoot an arrow. This is how you have learned to approach an enemy, whose weapons usually are just like yours, designed to be mostly used at close range. You are excited and agitated as you prepare for the stress of battle.

The members of the patrol do something very strange, pointing what looks like a stick at you which suddenly makes a very loud noise and emits flame and a puff of smoke. You are momentarily startled by this. What is happening? You look around at your companions. They too are momentarily startled but, urged on by their leaders, they resume shouting, so you resume your advance.

As you move forward, the patrol is now yelling and gesticulating at you to go away but they have no spears or other weapons you can see.

They point the sticks at you again and there is more noise and smoke. The man next to you falls to the ground with part of his head missing. You stop and stare at him for a moment before you feel your arm struck violently and the shield smashed from your hand.

You stare at your arm as it hangs limply at your side, blood stream from a hole in your bicep. You cannot move it. What has happened? What terrible magic is this? Then you realise the other warriors are retreating fast, so you turn and run for your life. Less than a minute has passed.

What I have described is the product of my imagination. I have never been in a real battle but I have certainly been trained to use high powered assault rifles during my time in the Army Reserve and I’ve used them (firing blanks) in realistic exercises.

I can assure you that even knowing you are to be ambushed by troops firing blanks, the experience is disconcertingly scary. The noise, flashes of gunfire and yelling are disorienting and only when your training kicks in do you take action to find cover and then fight back.

In my assessment, to cause mass casualties amongst attacking warriors, a patrol would need to be composed of highly disciplined and trained police who were ready, willing and able to fire a series of carefully aimed shots at their attackers.

While the RPNGC police who accompanied patrols were dedicated, tough and determined men, few if any were trained to a level of combat readiness that would have allowed this.

Similarly, high casualties (more than a handful) would have only occurred if Simbu warriors had persisted with their attacks in the face of an unknown weapon that inflicted immediate, serious and sometimes fatal damage at a distance.

All the evidence of history is that it takes an exceptional level of discipline, organisation and courage to persist with combat in such circumstances.

Accounts of fights between patrols and attacking warriors indicate that they were usually very violent but short affairs. I find it very implausible that even the most hardened and committed warriors would confront rifles for long with a spear or bow and arrow once they understood what a rifle could do.

This is the reason I am sceptical about claims of mass casualties in fights with patrols. It seems to me entirely plausible that five warriors could be killed, but 35 seems very improbable.

Of course, none of this means that there were not incidents of extrajudicial killing of the type Mathias Kin reports. I am not sceptical that such incidents occurred, only the scale of them.

As a final observation, I need to point out that, typically, soldiers dislike killing other humans. After the heat of battle, many report being upset and despondent about having to do so.

During World War II, research found that fewer than 20% of soldiers ever fired aimed shots and many went out of their way to avoid hitting anyone. A small percentage simply refused to fire at all. Only a tiny handful appeared to be indifferent to killing.

I never observed that members of the RPNGC enjoyed the idea of killing someone and have no reason to believe that they would have willingly participated in slaughter. The same goes for patrol officers, especially as they were specifically instructed to avoid violence, even to the point of subjecting their patrols to danger.

The history of frontier violence in the Simbu and elsewhere in PNG is not pleasant to contemplate and has almost invariably been written by the colonisers. It is therefore important that Mathias has gathered the stories of those who were on the other side of the conflict.

But it also is important that those stories are understood in their proper context and with a clear understanding that, as Oscar Wilde famously said, the truth is seldom pure and never simple.


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Chris Overland

My goodness! I will email you David.

David Vorst

Well Mr Overland, I would be happy to discuss PNG with you.

Arthur Williams

A technical point. The ‘303’ came with a 10 round cartridge and was the normal UK infantry weapon until 1957.

I managed to shoot a haphazard 30 rounds in about two minutes during a night-time fire-power display for Sandhurst cadets in 1958 up in the Brecon Beacon artillery ranges.

I annoyed the many sheep that grazed freely on the Ministry of Defence-owned risk-prone hillsides. My rifle number, which we had to memorise, I think was 29L7058

You guys are providing us with a fascinating discussion of early Oz-PNG events. One point they mentioned at ASOPA about inter-tribal warfare was that it consisted of much: name-calling, screamed insults, waving weapons and threatening movements. A bit like British soccer hooliganism which ‘kicked’ off in the 1960s.

Over the years I have noticed that many reports of riots - whether inter-clan, inter-tribal or urban events - indicate the relatively small number of casualties. Even the death toll in real nasty clashes are generally tiny compared to large numbers involved in the fighting.

In fact we were told by old hands at ASOPA that road traffic would be stopped for time while an inter-clan set-to occurred but a death on one side could lead to a cessation of fighting and traffic could then flow again along the road near the ‘fighting ground’ at least until next round started.

It is worth noting elsewhere in the world’s troubled areas often death tolls in just a few hour internecine fighting are into double figures.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Go see Russell Soaba when you're next in Mosbi Lindsay. He and John are great friends.

John was kicked out of UPNG and is on the bones of his arse - it's very sad.

Despite that he drove Trevor Shearston and me around when we were there for the Croc Prize in 2014. The one where we met up with you at the Weigh Inn.

Lindsay F Bond

As to "easily misinterpreted", can John Waiko be contacted to outline from his thesis how structured retelling of oral history tended to preserve rather than derail significant data in historical acts of recollection.

Bernard Corden

Wilfred Burchett when reporting the truth from Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Korean and Vietnam was vilified and subjected to inhumane treatment from the Australian and US governments.

His passport went missing in 1955 and he lived in exile for many years and was refused entry to Australia to attend his father's funeral.

His son George has written several articles on Counterpunch quite recently:



The late Philip Knightley's book The First Casualty is well worth reading.

In an era of universal deceit telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act - George Orwell

There are at least two sides to every story.

Peter Kranz

Yes there are conflicting reports of the activities of German, British and Australians in PNG. What cannot be denied is that many people were killed. But this was far worse in Australia. Consider this (admittedly from Tasmania).

At a public meeting in Hobart in the late 1830s, Solicitor-General Alfred Stephen – later Chief Justice of New South Wales – shared with the assembled crowd his solution for dealing with “the Aboriginal problem”.

If the colony could not protect its convict servants from Aboriginal attack “without extermination”, said Stephen, “then I say boldly and broadly exterminate!”

Chris Overland

Thanks for your comments Mathias.

On the matter of your research methodology, I think you have drawn a wrong inference from what I have been saying. I am not critical of your research methodology if for no other reason than I am not familiar with it.

What I am concerned about is that you will, acting in good faith, draw the wrong inferences from what you have been told.

For example, you mention in your comments an incident which "resulted in five tribesmen being shot in the back".

An inference that may be drawn from this is that the patrol members unnecessarily killed five men who were running away. This may well be true but there are other possible interpretations of the same incident.

As I have mentioned in my article, firefights with high powered weapons are an essentially uncontrolled outburst of aggression, fear and stress. Exerting effective control over these incidents is very difficult.

A real world example of this happened in South Africa in 2016. A large crowd of angry gold miners were confronting a line of police who were trying to prevent them from marching any further. Some of the miners apparently were armed with clubs and spears as they would have been traditionally.

The police are firing tear gas (I think) and slowly retreating before the oncoming crowd. The situation appears very tense but controlled until, suddenly and without any order from an officer, someone fires a shot at the advancing crowd.

Immediately, there is fusillade of gunfire from other police lasting for perhaps 10 seconds before the frantic officers are able to make them stop firing. In that few seconds more than 30 miners were killed outright and a larger number injured.

This incident (available for viewing on YouTube) is a graphic illustration of how difficult it can be to maintain discipline and control in a tense and threatening situation. If one person panics, it can trigger a massive and disproportionate outburst of fire.

So, bearing this in mind, the five people hit in the back could well have been shot within literally a few seconds before the kiap or police sergeant in charge of the patrol could reassert control.

I cannot stress enough just how fast these events can be before literally anyone understands what the hell has happened.

I want to stress that I don't say that something much more sinister did not occur. There are too many cases where this has been true to say that.

However, what I think is that it is much more likely that a very agitated, almost hysterical few seconds of furious firing is more than enough to explain an incident of the type you are referring to.

I guess we will never know for sure. It is rare to have these incidents fully documented on video. Even in the South African example I have mentioned, it is very, very unclear who fired the first shot and why so many police immediately opened fire in consequence.

Anyway, I look forward to seeing the detailed results of your work.

Paul Oates

In line with the points Chris has raised, I offer the following eyewitness accounts from Des Martin, an occasional contributor to these columns, who at the moment is gravely ill. I'm sure wouldn't mind me relating them.

Des described what it was like for him as a soldier in PNG during World War II and later as a Kiap leading patrols in the Sepik in the 1950s.

He suggests the rules of war were truly in operation in both cases. Three engagements Des spoke of come to mind.

The first was an ambush on the Sepik River with he and his police up to their armpits in the river and sheltering behind a canoe whilst he fired his pistol and the police fired their .303’s into the air to deter their unseen attackers.

The police NCO said afterwards that "the arrows fell like rain" (‘spia bilong bunanara ipindaun olsem ren’).

The second incident Des spoke of was when his patrol was confronted by an armed war party. Confronted by many men about to unleash arrows at him and the patrol, Des told his police not to fire.

Running forward with his NCO, Des fired a shot from his pistol at the ground in front of the fight leader who was about to fire an arrow at Des. The fight leader got a fright and Des grabbed the bow and threw it to the ground whereupon the rest of the war party ran away leaving the fight leader alone.

Eventually, the fight leader was convinced Des and his people were not going to kill him and friendly relations were established.

In the last example, Des and his patrol were confronted by another war party firing arrows. Des ordered the police to fire a shot over the heads of the attackers, who ran away.

But then, to Des’s astonishment, the police threw their rifles to the ground and tried to kick the bolts open with their feet. Des found the bolts of the issued .303 rifles were mismatched and had been stuck solid.

When he arrived back at the patrol post, Des sent a request for matching rifles and bolts. This request was apparently met with disfavour by district headquarters who inferred there was nothing wrong with the issued rifles and wanted to know why they were being fired.

An exasperated Des, who with his police had been in danger during the confrontation, wrote a sarcastic telegram requesting official house bricks be forwarded for use in the next engagement.

An official admonishment arrived not long after together with 20 properly matched rifles and bolts.

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

Chris and Mathias, both of you have substantiated your arguments with logic and reliable sources.

We can do a comparative analysis when Mathias completes his write-up with available materials and find a middle ground.

In the meantime continue to write for us since we are learning as logical arguments keep coming forward.

Mathias Kin

Good morning Chris and ol arapela friends. This article is much better and sure I enjoyed every line.

The only issue with it is that you keep accusing me of not carrying out competent research that is based on facts and it seems you accuse me of not using proper historical research methodologies.

My article a few days back was only a glimpse, a couple of pages, of the project. I referenced the materials I drew from in my last article.

Dr Kituai's 'My Gun, My Brother' referred to the Kouno (Jiwaka) incident that resulted in five tribesmen being shot in the back. Kituai's research yielded details of how much effort Taylor and officers in the Administration and police put in to try to avert the course of justice.

The Australian minister responsible also gave the final order for the two suspended officer, young Craig Symonds and District Officer Taylor to return to work.

I have also used reports and writings from Roberts, Bill Gammage, John Waiko and others. Importantly I have interviewed very old people around Simbu who witnessed these killings.

I am getting good assistance from people who know Chimbu history and who understand that history must be told as it really happened, and fairly.

The history we have today was written by the 'invaders' who wanted people in my position 70 years later to read it the way they want.

I hope my project will provide you with the opportunity to read this other version, the New Guinean side of the story.

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