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On the trail of Dudley McCarthy: he who had the minister’s ear

Sepik River scene
The middle Sepik near Korogo


SYDNEY - I had met Dudley McCarthy at least three times in New Guinea, but it was the two occasions when he was accompanying then Minister for Territories Paul Hasluck—at Wewak in 1962 and at Maprik in 1963—that most interested me.

McCarthy was one of the Assistant Secretaries of the Department of Territories at the time, and he seemed to have the Minister’s ear more than was his due. I wondered why.

I knew he had been a kiap in New Guinea before World War II but did not know when or where or for how long—or, indeed, any of the details of his subsequent career.

Many years later, after much digging, I found a short article entitled ‘Enter a historian’ in The Bulletin magazine of 6 February 1946. It helped a little but not a lot. It read:

"Towards the end of 1941, a manuscript found its way to The Bulletin from the Middle East. Entitled ‘Retreat to Tobruk’ and bearing the signature I.O., it was a vivid first-hand account of the muddled nightmare rush from El Agheila to Tobruk.

“The writer voiced no criticism, placed no blame, he merely described the retreat from the point of one who whirled along with it. His article aroused much interest and brought many letters from Diggers and others eager to read more from the same pen.

Dudley McCarthy
Dudley McCarthy - official photograph as a senior Australian diplomat

The Bulletin would have liked more, too, but I.O. had gone into smoke or perhaps into a Libyan dust storm.

"After more than four years he turned up at The Bulletin office last week. He is Dudley McCarthy just appointed to assist Gavin Long in producing the official history of Australia’s part in World War II. McCarthy went overseas with the 2/17th Battalion in 1940 and was a lieutenant at the time of the Desert Handicap.

’Retreat from Tobruk’ did not please the higher-ups, which accounts for the journalistic silence of I.O. for the rest of the war. After Libya and Syria, he came home with the Sixth Div. H.Q. was promoted to major and served on the staff of Generals Herring and Stevens in Darwin, visited New Guinea at the time of Kokoda and returned to Darwin as Brigade Major of the 21st Brigade....

“The history is to be a composite job; McCarthy's responsibility will be the volumes dealing with the defence of Australia, and the early New Guinea campaigns up to the Victory at Wau. If he can keep up his I.O. standard, his contribution will be great reading."

From time to time, I continued to seek information of McCarthy’s two New Guinea years and most recently chanced upon a book he had written which was published in 1979. ‘The Fate of O’Loughlin: A Novel’ was a fascinating read. Where had it been hiding for almost forty years?

McCarthy drew on several incidents that occurred at places on the Sepik River and wove them into the fictional O’Loughlin’s career. Finely drawn characters, headhunters, hangings, sorcery, cargo cults, fevers, mysticism, yesteryear patrolling, reflections and criticism: it is all there—even one or two whiffs of sex. Perhaps too much coverage for the non-enthusiast.

Book coverIn an Introduction McCarthy stated that the locale of the novel is not the “original great Sepik District of New Guinea” but is "a fictional place indicative only of that varied and mysterious country."

Despite that declaration, his descriptions of “the big river,” floating islands, tamberans [spirit houses], and his three references to Marienberg do place most of the narrative squarely on the river.

The incorporation of the two historical Sepik events, the murder of Assistant District Officer McDonald by Constable Sipei at Ambunti and the incident involving George Ellis at Angoram, only reinforce that opinion.

McCarthy’s reference to Lutheran missionaries and his description of the river as flowing yellow provide a contrary view. The Lutheran Mission was not in the Sepik and the river did not “flow yellow,” at least not in my time.

I had seen it with colours ranging from colourless to black but more often a muddy brown. We washed in it; we drank it mixed with alcohol; you could chew the suspended silt and grit; but it never flowed yellow.

The ‘Australian Dictionary of Biography’ in its entry for Dudley McCarthy states that "‘The Fate of O’Loughlin: A Novel’ is largely autobiographical.” It’s an assertion I believe is substantially incorrect.

McCarthy arrived in New Guinea on a two-year appointment in 1933 but was forced by a bond with the NSW Department of Education to return to Australia to take up a teaching role in Sydney at the beginning of 1935.

To travel by sea from Angoram, Ambunti or anywhere else on the Sepik would have required him to have left the Territory by late 1934. He could not have been still a kiap when Edward Colin McDonald, Assistant District Officer at Ambunti, was murdered on 28 February 1935.

McCarthy enlisted in the AIF [Australian Imperial Forfce] in 1940 and was overseas, still serving in the in the Middle East Ellis, when the Ellis affair erupted at Angoram in 1942. 

I found that the novel flagged a little towards the end when a plot involved the Papua New Guinea prime minister, O’Loughlin, taken hostage by a Popular Anarchist Front quasi-terrorist organisation known as the Spotted Cat - another piece of fiction created by McCarthy's pen.

Papua New Guinea became independent in 1975. At the time, McCarthy was Australian ambassador to Spain and 64 years of age. He retired the following year.

I had not found all that I sought about McCarthy and the Minister’s ear. That is a story for another time. But I enjoyed both ‘The Fate of O’Loughlin: A Novel’ and The Bulletin article ‘Retreat from Tobruk’. So, for the moment, I felt well satisfied.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

I found my copy Bob. It was sitting next to Gus O'Donnell's 1967 book 'Time Expired'. I really enjoyed that book as I recall.

Gus was a kiap who joined up in 1937 and was first posted to Salamaua. From 1945-7 he was a lecturer at ASOPA, then went on to Manus, Lae, Kokopo and Losuia. He resigned in 1952.

I was in Hagen in 1967 and there was a kiap out west somewhere, maybe Kandep or Wapenamanda, writing a novel. Never did find out who it was but I read a few pages that the typist in the Sub-District Office was typing up for him. It was pretty good. I wonder if it was ever published.

The worst PNG novel I ever read was 'Take Necessary Action' by the sisters Chris and Louise Harkness - couldn't make head nor tail of it.

Daniel Claasen (Kenya)

Thanks for the reminder Bill. I purchased and read this book around the same time as Phil did. Having spent some seven years on 'the river' I found it interesting. Don't know what became of my copy. Lost somewhere somewhen! Must chase up the Tobruk article.

Bob Cleland

PS. Just had a thought and looked into the index of Paul Hasluck's 'A Time for Building'.

McCarthy, D gets six references. Looking at them now, it's clear that he worked closely with Hasluck when he was in the Department of Territories with 'Esky' Lambert.

Bob Cleland

I remember the book, Bill. Looking in my overflowing book shelves just now, I couldn't find it. I know I had it once. Like Phil, I must have passed it on to a charity - probably Lifeline.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I bought a copy of 'The Fate of O'Loughlin' when it came out in 1979 and assumed that Dudley McCarthy was just another kiap passing the time writing novels - there was a lot of it going around in the 1960-70s.

Thanks for the background Bill.

I wonder if it's worth another read? I've just wheeled a pile of books I bought in the 1960-70s down to Vinnies. I re-read a few and now wonder what I saw in them - lots of African stuff, Ruarke, Rand etc.

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