The kiaps did not just ‘disappear’ at PNG independence
1970s patrol notebook: Strip maps and mocka juice

The necessary undoing of the colonial kiap mythology

Kiaps and appointed village officials (luluais and tultuls)
Kiaps and appointed village officials (luluais and tultuls), 1950s


ADELAIDE - The kiaps I worked with were a very eclectic bunch indeed. They came from diverse backgrounds and, to the best of my recollection, none of them engaged in shouting or bullying behaviour.

That said, it seems vanishingly improbable that there were not instances of red-faced shouting and bullying. From time to time we all fail to have our finest hour.

I have previously written about the mythology of the kiap, which gave them a certain glamour, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of the broader population.

This mythology conferred a power and prestige upon kiaps that allowed a few hundred widely dispersed men with perilously few resources to exert effective control over millions of people.

As independence approached, Papua New Guinea’s educated elite wanted and needed an alternative narrative to that which had grown up around kiaps.

For nascent national leaders, it was important to disempower kiaps, to reduce them to mere human dimensions, as a first step towards creating a new narrative that allowed Papua New Guineans to assume power and authority in place of the kiaps.

I think that this was and is a pretty consistent theme in the transition from colonial rule to self-government worldwide: the colonial regime must be delegitimised in some way to create space for a new regime to arise in its place.

So new mythologies are created that, for example, show the ‘founding fathers' as having virtues they may not have actually possessed.

The USA is an exemplar of this in the way it gives almost biblical status to the Declaration of Independence, while the French revolutionaries’ Declaration of the Rights of Man remains central to France's conception of itself as a nation.

I think that this is the context within which stories were created that depicted kiaps as blustering bullies. The aim was not to depict objective reality but to create a new story that better suited the needs and ambitions of an emergent nation.

We humans live within an imaginary world of ideas as much as the real, natural world. We constantly tell ourselves stories about religion, economics, national identity, fashion, music, relationships between races and between men and women and so forth.

In so doing, we use the law, marketing, politics, traditions and social conventions to help create the virtual reality in which we prefer to live our lives.

So, it is totally unsurprising that some Papua New Guineans embarked upon the task of destroying the kiap legend and equally unsurprising that we old kiaps are bent upon keeping that legend alive.

After all, it was our reality for a time and most of us treasure it still.


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Mathias Kin

I captured some lines on the great Chimbu kiap Joseph Nombri in 'My Chimbu'.

As the indigenous kiap subject has been discussed here, and I saw the great man's name mentioned a few times, I intend to post a short life story of Sir Joseph Nombri.

Also mentioned are names of many other kiaps from Chimbu, and others from outside Chimbu, who had served in Chimbu.

Philip Fitzpatrick

A book about PNG local kiaps would be really interesting.

There must be quite a few still around who would be willing to share their experiences.

There were still 'kiaps' around in the 1990s in the Sepik. I'm not sure what their duties were but they apparently had a uniform with a kiap badge. I've seen the badge but don't know much about them.

Mark Davis

Thanks Ross. It would be pretty good to see a book come out of your researches (hint, hint).

All I can recall about Hila is that he was at Mumeng before independence, married to Buruka, with one small child (my niece Mea). He is still alive, although very frail, and I will try to find out more.

Ross Wilkinson

Mark, the ex-kiaps have been compiling a list of national kiaps over recent years as indicated by Phil Fitzpatrick here a couple of months ago. We have 487 names on the database to date and are still checking a variety of sources.

There is no Hila Morea on the list so if you could provide me with relevant information at it will be checked and included.

Unfortunately one of the problems with identifying national kiaps is around the correct spelling of their names. Sometimes these have been anglicised or, for family or cultural reasons, they have changed their name.

Also, we have had the problem with people, both expatriate and national, claiming to have been kiaps when they were otherwise employed in the field. Perhaps it was easy to use the term "kiap" because it was easy to understand.

Finally, it was not unknown for Assistant Field Officers and Local Government Officers to be promoted to kiap positions. However, available records only go up to Independence so if recruitment or transfer/promotion occurred after that date, any nominations for inclusion would need to be supported with definitive evidence.

Mark Davis

Maybe it's time to update the legends to include the indigenous kiaps - they seem to have fallen into a kind of Neverland. I cannot recall much being written about them, if anything, especially those who became DCs/PCs around the time of Independence. I recall some very impressive figures at that time: Joe Nombri, Philip Bouraga, Don Sigamata. With the exception of Bougainville I think every DC was a Papua New Guinean on the eve of independence. There must have been hundreds of them, right down the line - my inlaw Hila Morea was a patrol officer.

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