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On patrol in colonial PNG: The attack at Numbaira

Bob Cleland
Bob Cleland in more recent times. "As the heavy rifle jolted into my shoulder I was instantly appalled I’d deliberately attempted to take a human life"

BOB CLELAND | PNGAA Blog

BRISBANE - I was on a routine census, health survey and general administration patrol in the Tiaora Division South of Kainantu in 1956.

Though the people were reputed to be surly and uncooperative, I found them tractable enough and the patrol proceeded smoothly.

Close to the southern extremity of the area I heard reports of tribal fighting even further south at a village called Numbaira. Two policemen I’d sent to have a look were warned off with alarming threats and derisive insults, so I decided I’d better take the whole patrol in to investigate.

The Numbaira lived on the headwaters of the mighty Purari River in the same valley system as the fearsome Kukukuku. They had a reputation as warriors who loved a fight and resented intruders. They had attacked a Government patrol some years earlier.

We were on the track well before dawn and climbed to the rim of the ridge surrounding a collection of hamlets in a small valley. It was steep, rugged limestone country. With binoculars I could see apparently normal early morning village life, with women and children bustling about their houses.

Suddenly, cries of alarm drifted up to us through the still morning air and the villagers began rushing about and disappearing into the long grass and craggy limestone outcrops. One of my policemen said to me, “Look, they have lookouts who’ve seen us.”

Some distance away, across a gorge, was a distinct smoke column rising as a warning signal. Within five minutes, there was no sign of life in the hamlets or elsewhere in the valley.

We needed to reach the Government Rest House on a spur some few kilometres away, well positioned for a strategic defence, but to get there we had to follow the track down through the Numbaira hamlets and then up a ridge to the Rest House.

We came into the open and descended to the village. Apart from the noise of our own progress, there was dead silence. We checked all the houses but found no one. The people had taken all their possessions with them; not a good sign.

As we continued to the Rest House, we were forced us into a long single file by the rough terrain and the narrow path through tall grass and limestone pinnacles.

With me were European Medical Assistant John Birkin, his three Medical Orderlies, two Police Lance Corporals, eight Constables, and about 25 carriers, interpreters and other personnel. Each policeman carried a .303 rifle but no ammunition. John carried a .22 calibre rifle and I had a .303, both with ammunition.

Suddenly and silently, a volley of dozens of arrows showered us, falling almost vertically from the sky. The patrol faltered but stayed together and continued with the interpreters, on my instructions, calling out something like, “Don’t fight us. We have rifles. You cannot win.”

Five minutes later, there was another volley accompanied by distant yells and yodelling. As we started the climb up the spur in more open country, a small group of tribesmen followed at a distance, yelling insults and firing arrows, all of which fell short.

Fifteen minutes later we made the Rest House with the tribesmen still just out of arrowshot and continuing their belligerent behaviour. One carrier and one policeman had minor arrow wounds and were treated by John. With several police and the interpreter, I stayed near the lower perimeter of the 100-metre clearing around the Rest House, watching.

I quote from my Patrol Report: “At this stage, a single round of .303 ammunition was fired into the air well above their heads. They hesitated, but after a minute or so, continued firing arrows. A second round was fired into the ground about ten minutes later about 50 yards in front of the hostile group. Seeing the puff of dust, they retired to sit on a kunai hillock about ¾ mile away.”

That was simple, unemotional and understated language for the purposes of my official report. The reality was, in fact, highly emotional.

This was a first-time event in my mere two years’ experience as a field officer. I knew I had to stay calm and act within the very tight limits of policy and the law while containing the hostile situation. The police Lance Corporal, Kapo, who I knew well, was experienced but excitable – and upset that one of his Constables had been slightly wounded by an arrow.

John, the Medical Assistant, seemed to be seeing this as a bit of a Boys Own adventure. And the hostile group below us, led by the Numbaira Luluai or head man, was in a high state of anger and belligerence.

Before I fired the first shot, the attackers had been inching closer so they were now almost able to lob an arrow on the Rest House. Other groups at several points behind them, though quieter, were also closing and firing occasional arrows. It was then I fired the warning shot.

About fifteen seconds later, the light crack- crack-crack of John’s .22 sounded as he emptied his magazine into the air. “Bloody fool,” I thought.

The anti-climactic effect of the small calibre .22, coming after the crashing shot of the .303, with its echoes reverberating around the enclosed valley, was comical. The tribesmen must have thought so, too. They stopped retreating, let off a chorus of excited yells and whoops, and consolidated their positions, continuing their verbal abuse and firing arrows.

As they advanced again, it seemed they were testing us before getting more serious. The Lance Corporal beside me said, “You had better shoot the Luluai, Kiap.” I said, “No, Kapo, we’ll wait and see what they do.”

Their attitude and threat didn’t change. Kapo said, “Kiap, shoot the Luluai. Without him, the rest will not attack.” I knew that to be so, but I waited. The Luluai’s group, as well as the other groups, continued to close, probably emboldened by our lack of further reaction. I concluded enough was enough. I carefully aimed at the Luluai and fired.

As the heavy rifle jolted into my shoulder I was instantly appalled that I’d deliberately attempted to take a human life. I visualised serious reprisals. I imagined the inevitable enquiry into my actions and the devastation of my career. Then the bullet hit the ground about 50 metres in front of the Luluai with a huge burst of dust and pulverised limestone.

I remained motionless in the same expansion of time and finally came to with Kapo saying, “Ah, good Kiap, they’re all running away now.”

My report continues: “After a rest of two hours, during which the group did not move, the writer with a Lance Corporal and the Interpreter approached to within 300 yards of the hostile group and engaged them in shouted conversation.

With much persuasion and cajoling, the Luluai came forward of his own accord. He was taken into the Rest House and taken into custody.”

The Luluai, the Government appointed village headman, would have been recognised by an earlier patrol as a leader, appointed and counselled, among other things, to keep the peace in his village and assist Government patrols when they visited. He was certainly a leader and a ‘big man’, but his other duties were clearly being ignored.

In the back and forth shouting preceding his surrender, I emphasised he was a Luluai and suggested he would be shamed in the view of many people if he didn’t do his job properly. If he gave himself up, I promised that we would take him with us to Kainantu for a short time and return him to his village in due course.

That night the hamlets were quiet and women and children returned to their houses. The next day four more tribesmen visited the Rest House saying they would go with their leader to Kainantu. It turned out they’d been a part of the small belligerent group.

In the Court for Native Affairs, convened later that day, I sentenced them all to three months gaol in Kainantu for riotous behaviour.

The object behind the sentence was to take these men to Kainantu and incarcerate them, but also to allow them to learn Melanesian Pidgin, let them experience parts of the wider world outside their village and teach them a little about law, agriculture and economics.

In discussions with Assistant District Officer Mick Foley, it was agreed I would personally return them to their village as promised and use them to establish good relations with that village and others in the area.

That didn’t happen! Headquarters in Port Moresby decided I should go to Sydney to attend a year-long course at the Australian School of Pacific Administration. About the same time, Mick Foley went on leave.

So, when the five Numbaira men completed their sentence, they were released in Kainantu and expected to find their own way back home. Sometime later, the Numbaira people attacked another Government patrol. What could have been a significant forward step in pacification and development turned out to be only a slight hiccup in their traditional aggressive way of life.

And I have been forever thankful that I underestimated the distance between us when I fired that second shot.

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