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Reviving some of the lost stories of German New Guinea

German native police  1909
German native police on parade in 1909

ROB PARER

BRISBANE - I lived most of my life in what was formerly German New Guinea. In Wewak for the first four years of my life and then, after schooling in Australia, in Aitape for the rest of my working days.

In recent years, the history of German New Guinea has become available in books translated from German into English and am learning some astounding information not known by the Aitape people.

For example, I was amazed to find in a 1910-11 report a bridge 165 metres long was planned to be built across the Raihu River and villagers from Wokau, Pro and Lemieng worked tirelessly at felling heavy ironwood logs of and dragging them to the site.

And a permanent public ferry service had been established at rivers and creeks so people could travel dry-shod from Aitape to the great Sissano Lagoon 45 km away. Now, in 2018, long gone.

The road east from Aitape through Tadji, Vokau, Pro, Lemieng, Paup to Yakamul had been completed. The construction of a 121 metre stone jetty through the surf had been completed and soon would be extended another 80 metres. When a bridge over the Aitape (Maldic) River collapsed, it was replaced immediately. Overall, with limited resources, the German Administration did extraordinary feats.

Only the remnants of the reinforced concrete jail is still standing today. The German police force was the largest in the Pacific, numbering 1,000 men by 1914, and yet it was still too small to handle unrest, especially when it occurred in different areas simultaneously. The people did not give way so easily to the intruders.

Off shore from Aitape is Seleo Island where a trading and plantation operation was established by the Neu Guinea Compagnie in 1895, was run by Herr Paul Lucker. Eventually the company had 5,875 coconut palms at Seleo and 700 on Tarawai Island.

Layout of derelict Seleo Boarding School
Layout of the now derelict Australian missionary-built Seleo school as seen from the air around 1950

When I went to stay overnight at the Catholic School at Seleo in 1955, Fr Martin Schmach OFM was headmaster and Br Jerome Sweeney OFM the other teacher. By then there were no signs of the coconut palms that had been there in 1930. I presume they were all destroyed during the war.

I have a photo of American aircraft bombing the island in 1944 and also a photo of the nice layout of the school from the air.

At Seleo between March and December 1899, 120 tonnes of copra was produced, four tonnes of trepang and two tonnes of green snail shells. And an order had been placed in Sydney for a sailing schooner of about 50 tons which would have a German crew of five and a local crew of three who would replace the Germans upon delivery plus  two Germans to pearl dive.

The North German Lloyd ships called at Seleo and Aitape but found it almost impossible to unload cargo at Aitape during the north-west season from September to April. On many occasions the small boats capsized and all cargo was lost.

There were also lives of missionaries lost in the huge surf, including two nuns. The ships ceased calling into Aitape in 1904 because it was uneconomical – and dangerous.

In July 1912, there were reports of plans for a chain of high power coastal wireless stations in the German Pacific territories. These would include two stations in New Guinea, at Rabaul and Aitape. All would have a full time operators. These were captured by Australian troops in 1914, upon the outbreak of World War I, when all German property was also expropriated.

Before the price of copra collapsed in 1930, Burns Philip ships called at Seleo Island and Boram Plantation near Wewak.

Seleo Plantation was purchased in the 1920s by Rupert Colyer of Colyer Watson. Billionaire Bob Oatley, famed in Australia, was trained by Rupert from age 15 and calls him ‘The Prince of Merchants’.

In the 1950s Rupert gave his property on Seleo Island to Bishop Ignatius Doggett OFM and the Franciscans built the first primary boarding school there. Students came from throughout the West Sepik and the better ones went on to St Xavier’s High School on Kairiru Island, offshore from Wewak.

Let me move earlier in time to the late nineteenth century and further south to near the border of German and British New Guinea to relate the story of the ill-fated Otto Ehlers who decided to cross the rugged Owen Stanley Range in 1895 from near Salamaua in German New Guinea to Kerema in British New Guinea.

Ehlers' planned crossing of the Owen Stanley Range
Ehlers planned 1895 crossing from the Huon Gulf across the Owen Stanleys to the Gulf of Papua

Ehlers, a newspaper correspondent and professional traveller, was determined to make the trek. Despite being warned by Administrator Rudiger not to attempt the precipitous crossing, he set out on the journey from the Huon Gulf to the Gulf of Papua accompanied by Wilhelm Piering, a police officer, two Buka policemen and supported by 41 carriers and one servant.

Ehlers calculated his 44-man expedition would average six kilometres a day, therefore reaching the south coast of British New Guinea in 30 days.

Other than rations for five weeks and some trade goods, eight government supplied rifles and two shotguns, the explorers carried no more than the clothes on their backs. Geographical instruments were left behind as was photographic and other scientific equipment as these were regarded as unnecessary baggage.

The party started inland from the mouth of the Francisca River just south of Salamaua on 14 August 1895.This was not far from the German patrol post of Morobe which was just near the boundary of British New Guinea.

Nothing was heard or seen of them until 20 members of the party were picked up by the Mobiabi tribe on the Lakekamu River in British New Guinea on 20 October, 67 days after they had begun the overland journey.

Ehlers and Piering were not among them.

It seems rain had set in before they reached the only inland village on their track, with the first carrier dead within 10 days. After five weeks exposure to rain and cold, cutting their way through dense rain forest, climbing steep mountains and across precipitous ravines, and wading through leech infested creeks, Ehlers and his men had run out of food.

Reduced to eating grass and leaves and distressed by dysentery and other ailments, fewer than 35 men reached a tributary of the Lakekamu River around 30 September. They hacked their way along the crocodile infested river for nine days before the waterway could be negotiated by two rafts they fabricated.

After another six days of navigating rapids and narrow waterways, 20 men reached the village of Motumotu. But when one raft capsized, the two Buka policemen with the party, Ranga and Upia (Opiha ) decided that, to make room on the remaining raft, they would kill Ehlers, Piering and several carriers. So they shot them.

When interviewed by Mekeo District government agent, Kowald, the two conspirators concocted the story that the Germans had drowned. Only after the British administration in Port Moresby returned the few survivors to their home did the truth emerge.

Imprisoned for murder, Ranga and Upia managed to escape and when pursued shot dead the newly appointed Administrator, Curt von Hagen. The two escapees were then speared to death by the Gogol people, their heads severed and taken to Stephansort as evidence for a reward that had been posted by the New Guinea administration.

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Robert L Parer CMG MBE

Re the derelict Seleo Island school. In 1971 a group called MondoX took over the former Seleo School and promised Bishop William Rowell they would restore the buildings.

MondoX was run by a flamboyant Franciscan Friar Padre Eligio who had a Drug Rehabilitation Centre just north of Cetona in Italy and others around Italy.

So Padre Eligio made Seleo into a Drug Rehabilitation Centre and about eight men arrived and were kept busy restoring the buildings, including the Church.

They appeared to have ready finance and purchased a small boat and even decided to make a short airstrip there.

They asked me to organise to bring to the island, on our pontoon, a small Fiat bulldozer that Fr Leo Leoni had at Pes Mission Station. Their long term idea was to base a small Cessna there and have their men go out to various Aitape Diocese Mission Stations and apply their skills in helping the Parish.

But it didn’t go according to that plan as it wasn’t long before some of them started going to pieces mentally and physically.

A few months later one guy had to be medivacked out as mentally he could not handle life in the tropics and most of them were the same.

I do not think that Bishop Bill had any idea what he was getting himself into. Padre Eligio came a few times to see how it was going and with his rose coloured glasses he was most unusual.

At some time he was the Chaplain for the mighty Milan Soccer Club. He had many rehab communities around Italy so was too busy to keep proper control on a faraway place like Seleo, so it all folded and the station drifted back to it’s previous state.

When Bishop Bill was in Italy, he was given a grand tour by Padre Eligio of some of the restored castles etc that he has operating as drug/alcohol rehab centres. You can Google his first one near Cetona. It is now said to be the best restaurant in Italy and also a drug rehab centre.

It is housed in a building started by St Francis in 1212. Many of Francis's disciples, who also became saints, stayed there. Over 800 years it drifted in and out of use as both a convent and monastery.

In 1970 Padre Eligio got permission from the Bishop of Florence to take it over and restore it to be used as a drug rehabilitation community called Mondo X which he had started a few years earlier. It took 12 years to bring it to an immaculate condition.

Gideon Kakabin

Interesting information. It is also interesting to note the establishment of the station appeared in the 1906/1907 annual report, and it appears that the station was known either as Berlinhafen, Eitape or Aitape.

With the growth of the large force of 1,000 men by 1914, is it possible that some of the defending army at the 1914 battle for Bitapaka were deployed from Eitape, or did they remain to defend against local intrusions and possibly defend the local wireless station as well?

Robert L Parer CMG MBE

The Seleo Boarding School was not built by the Germans. It was built in the 1940/50s. An amazing Australian lay missionary Peter Hughes was asked to build the school.

So first of all he and Fr Anslem OFM (Fr Dom) set up a basic saw mill at Malol Mission Station 15 km west of Aitape on the coast .

Peter got an engine out of a Gallion Grader left in the jungle after the war at Tadji Airfield and somehow got it to Malol to power the saw bench. Then, using axes, they cut down trees and logs that had to be dragged out of the jungle. There were no chainsaws or tractors at that time.

After some sawn timber was ready, a small 8HP petrol engine powered 18 foot boat that Fr Anslem had built was used to ferry the timber to Seleo. This could only be done in the calm south east season, April to September.

So from then on, while Peter worked on building the school without any qualified carpenters, Fr Dom looked after the sawmill. What a slow and laborious operation.

The heavy diesel International engine caused so much trouble as it had to be started with a tiny petrol engine attached to the side and then switched over to diesel. They nicknamed it 'Satan',

Peter was tragically killed some years later when Satan was used to power a sawmill at St Anna just 100 metres from our home. A lump of timber came off the saw striking Peter on the neck.

I took him to Raihu Hospital and Dr Judith Fitt looked after him for six hours until a Gibbs Norseman aircraft arrived but, just as he was being put into the aircraft, he passed away.

His wife Dorothy and four lovely young children accompanied his body to Wewak and continued on to Australia and never returned.

The small expat community was in deep sorrow for many months. Peter Hughes was an amazing builder, a gifted mechanic and a dedicated missionary.

Barbara Short

Thanks Rob for these intriguing stories of life in PNG during German times. Great history.

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