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Separating fact from fiction - history is seldom pure & never simple

CAW Monckton
Early Papuan magistrate CAW Monckton - suave here but had a 'shoot and loot' approach to law enforcement


ADELAIDE - One of the perennial problems for historians is separating fact from fiction.

History is a notoriously murky subject, capable of being interpreted or reinterpreted because the facts change or new facts emerge or, sometimes, simply because we choose to perceive the facts differently.

This is why there can be so many histories of the same event or time or place in which different authors reach different conclusions about what happened.

Thus, Geoffrey Blainey and Manning Clark, both eminent historians, wrote very different histories of Australia. To this day, aspects of Australian history emphasised (or de-emphasised) by each of these great scholars are hotly contested in the so called 'history wars'.

I have recently read a splendid book called 'The English and Their History' by Robert Tombs, in which the author takes a very different and forensic view of English history to that usually reflected in classical scholarship.

Tombs’ exposes how myth, confusion, bias, misunderstanding, misreporting and omission have all contributed to what the English understand to be their collective history.

With this in mind, it is a bit frustrating for me to read that Papua New Guinea supposedly has “a longstanding tradition of military-style and heavy-handed policing, and some of my fellow countrymen assert direct links between this behaviour and that of some kiaps under the previous Australian colonial administration.”

It is not that this statement is entirely wrong, simply that it is misleading.

That there were incidents of the heavy handed behaviour by some colonial officers is hardly contestable. The murderous actions of Assistant Magistrate CAW Monckton during his notorious patrol through what is now Oro Province are a prime example of what now would be regarded as criminal behaviour.

Even at the time (around 1900) Monckton’s “shoot and loot” approach to law enforcement excited equally strenuous expressions both of support and condemnation.

Of course, Monckton’s actions were not a reflection of the administration’s overall policy in relation to law enforcement. Generally speaking, the law was applied with a measured hand.

A great deal of latitude was used in both policing and the courts so as to take into account the cultural and traditional contexts within which criminal behaviour occurred.

Thus, the 32 men eventually brought to trial for the murders in 1953 of Patrol Officers Gerald Szarka and Geoffrey Harris and Constable Buritori, were each sentenced to death but this was commuted to ten years imprisonment with hard labour.

Had they been Australians tried for such a crime in Australia, it is almost certain that at least some of them would have been hanged but the appellant judge evidently took into account the traditional and social context of their actions.

I mention these two examples simply to illustrate the range of behaviours in relation to law enforcement that occurred during PNG’s colonial era.

Consequently, characterising law enforcement during that time as “heavy handed” is both misinformed and misleading and certainly not supportive of any assertion that subsequent behaviour by the RPNGC after independence was or is directly linked to how kiaps went about enforcing the law.

The writing of PNG’s history is a work in progress. Historians like Mathias Kin are striving to write histories from the perspective of the colonised rather than the coloniser.

This is important work but future generations of Papua New Guineans will not be well served if actions or motivations attributed to the colonial administration reflect less than a carefully balanced assessment of the available evidence.

Of course, we old kiaps will not be around much longer to defend our legacy. Soon enough we will all have passed into the long night of history, having played our parts and left the stage.

We mostly were and are neither saints nor sinners, just ordinary men who were once called upon to do an extraordinary job in the dying days of European imperialism.

I think that our collective hope is simply that our actions will be judged fairly based upon the available evidence, not through the distorting prism of ideology or post colonial mythology.

I urge PNG’s emerging group of historians to heed Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism that “the truth is seldom pure and never simple.”

This is the best way to ensure that your work stands up to forensic examination of the type practiced by Robert Tombs in his review of English history which, even after more than a thousand years of scholarly consideration, still provokes controversy.


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Lindsay F Bond

Digression it will appear, Chris, yet may be excused on the basis of comparing images of magistrates.

A dapper Monckton who wielded his version of law traveled to instances of travail more than a century ago, while enjoying the visual splendor of Tufi, Collingwood Bay and mountainous Owen Stanleys.

Travelling too but for folk of today's vast Western Australia, is a magistrate pointedly more adept in conversations, customs and corrections:
Note the presentation of law facilitates a defense lawyer.

Nowadays Tufi PNG at this weekend is enjoying a festival of three days, for which I saw commendably extensive preparations. Of people and places, readers might look for Hasselberg's book "Beautiful Tufi".

Bernard Corden

On a much more dystopian note....."It's easy to write the history, all the eyewitnesses are dead" - Ljupka Cvetanova (The New Land)

Chris Overland

Mathias, I am strongly supportive of your work. The colonised need to be able to tell their story to, as you rightly point out, help balance the historic ledger.

All I am saying is that figuring out fact from fiction is an ongoing task for all historians, not that the particular oral histories you have collected are necessarily wrong. In fact, I can think of a number of plausible reasons why they may very well be correct.

However, I'll leave my own musings on this potentially tricky topic for another day, after I have seen your published work.

Mathias Kin

Interesting read, Chris. History is written by the conquerors. This is a well known "tok tru". Even my old folks boast well of their victories over their enemies in those never-ending feuds.

Seventy years ago you were the conquerors, you tailored your writings for me today. Displa em tok tru! The world read your reports and believed them in its entirety, never once doubting.

But there is evidence to show that some of the early explorers were hell bent on ensuring their stories are told especially the once involving killings of innocent people.

In the 1930s no one went into the valley to ask a warrior his side of the story. The Aussies at home piled accolades on you for 'what you did' on the frontiers.

Give me a chance, Chris. I am telling my story now, my own story. Mi harim planti sitori bilong you pinis. Nau yu harim mi, laka?

Philip Fitzpatrick

One of my favourite authors is Penelope Fitzgerald.

She has observed that the purpose of novels (fiction) is to fill in the gaps left by history.

I think that's a valid comment.

Paul Oates

You raise an important point Chris. Any assessment about the actions of those who have marched through the pages of history will logically be made by those who use their contemporary yardstick.

To be able to travel back in time and make considered judgements of actions taken is not neither possible nor in fact easy to try and attempt. Unintentional bias and inculcated culture also then play a part in whatever is then written about the actions of individuals in history without being able to fully appreciate the times and the circumstances that led up to whatever took place.

So will future historians writing about PNG's history 'trip over individual trees or take a helicopter view of the forest'?

Based on the examples you raise Chris, 'Husat isave'?

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