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aussie 24-06-2003 11:30 PM

Former Australian residents recall experiences in PNG
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Review of Tales of Papua New Guinea: Insights, Experiences and Reminiscences edited by Stuart Inder, Retired Officers’ Association of Papua New Guinea Inc., Roseville (NSW). Australia, pp. 200; Price: A$30 (available from ROAPING, P.O.Box 452, Roseville, NSW 2069, Australia + A$7 for /postage/packaging)

By Edward Ted P. Wolfers

For many Australians who lived and worked in Papua New Guinea before or during the transition to independence, the past is now another country.

Former expatriates (literally, ‘people away from their home country’) have become repatriates (‘returnees’).

With the passage of time, lingering memories of Papua New Guinea are often suffused with nostalgia (somewhat ironically, when one recalls that ‘nostalgia’ means literally ‘a longing for home’).

A recent spate of books and conferences intended to record experiences, both official and personal, in the 1960s and 1970s underline both passage of time as well as the ways in which participants and observers recall events.

Papua New Guinea and Australia are of course; geographically close much closer than most other former colonial dependencies and previous ruling powers.

The Australian impact on Papua New Guineans is evident in the increasing use of English (an its influence on Tok Pisin), the system of government and many other areas of public and private life, including the enthusiasm with which people in towns and even remote rural areas of Papua New Guinea follow Australian sports, especially the annual Rugby League State of Origin matches.

In such respects, the Australian legacy in Papua New Guinea resembles that in other ex-colonies around the world.

What is unusual is that, even after nearly a century of increasingly frequent and intense interactions, including twenty years of direct colonial rule in some parts of the country, the flow of influence in the other direction – from Papua New Guinea to Australia – continues to be slight.

From Cairns to Cottesloe, war memorials commemorate the importance for Australia of the New Guinea campaigns during World War II, both strategically and in terms of the impact the fighting and deaths had on previous generations.

Occasional streets and estates in Australia bear the names of particular battles, places and events in Papua New Guinea – from Kokoda top Arawa, and even Panguna Palms.

But, unlike other colonial and ex colonial powers, Australia is not home to many emigrants or descendants from its former territories.

The day-to-day language used by most Australians, the games they play, and the food they eat display almost no Papua New Guinean influence.

While Australians, like Europeans and Americans, have access to a wide variety of restaurants offering Asian, Middle Eastern, and even African food, where would you go in any major Australian city if you wanted to dine out on Papua New Guinean food?

Even taro, yams and aibika on sale in a very small number of shops are generally imported from Fiji (betel-nut in Cairns and sweets potato on sale elsewhere are locally grown).

Fly-in/Fly-out mining projects and the increasing tendency of well-paid professionals from both countries to live in Australia and commute of work in Papua New Guinea mean that development in Papua New Guinea has immediate are “trickle-down’ effects in Australia, mainly in and around Cairns.

But the dwindling number of returned residents is, in many respects, the most obvious experiences.

The range of activities covered extends from home-life with four and even more domestic servants, including a cook, a cleaner, gardener and a laundryman –through patrolling in areas not previously “contacted”, let alone controlled, by government – to running the court house at Ela Beach in Port Moresby.

The authors include Alison Marsh, who was born, married and lived for fifty years in Papua New Guinea.

Among other contributors, a number originally went North in search of gold or adventure.

Some, like Bert Weston, author of five different articles, moved on from one occupation to another as opportunities and fortunes changed – in his case from prospector to contractor in prewar Salamaua. Another contributor, Bill Johnston, tells of a “first contact’ patrol he carried out inland from Kikori, and then reappears one of several articles by his wife, Nancy Johnston, as the organizer of the fireworks displays held in major centers to celebrate independence.

Other writers are of tell of the experience of labor recruiters (Bert Weston again), anthropologists and an ornithologist, patrol officers and their wives.

Vulcanologists received special attention. So do the 1937 and 1994 volcanic eruptions in Rabaul and the 1951Mount Lamington.

In a different vein, a group of hard drinking Europeans beachcombers in Trobriand Islands is also described ‘alcoholic remorse’ as they prepared to open their stores to a public patiently awaiting the end of their three day drinking binge, and all.

Though some former missionaries, including Bishop David Hand, appear, they are probably under-represented both as authors and characters in the book relative to their numbers and influence.

As missionaries have, in fact, been among the most vigorous contributors to publications produced in and about Papua New Guinea, the attention paid other elements of the foreign-born community in Papua New Guinea can be regarded as filling a gap.

An especially valuable contribution to the social history of Australian colonialism is made by a number of articles by and about Australian women formerly resident in Papua New Guinea.

They include accounts of marriage and family life, as well as the difficulties many women encountered in travel to and coping on outstations (despite having servants).

From ‘First Contact’, in both coastal and Highlands areas, to national independence, the book spans a huge span of history actually experience over about 80 years.

In doing so, it recounts the deaths and heroism that followed the sinking of the MV Vaiveri at Kerema in 1930.

Another article records how a survivor swam from a sinking canoe for 20 miles (32 km) to New Ireland.

The final contribution, by Alex Zweck, carries the book forward by reporting on a return visit in 1994 to areas where he had previously patrolled.

Edited professionally by one of the most experienced Australian journalists and editors specializing in Pacific island affairs, Stuart Inder, the volume contains a wide ranging selection of a well written articles from quarterly journal published by an association of retirees from Papua New Guinea, including some based in talks that were taped and transcribed.

The articles are clear, crisp and short. Many are illustrated by black-and-white photographs, which are as apt as they have been carefully preserved. The text is further enlivened by the inclusion of boxes containing brief items of particular interest.

Despite the language and attitudes that were prevalent among the Australian residents before legally enforced racial discriminations began to subscribe in the 1960s, the articles are generally sensitive to contemporary standards.

Many are openly nostalgic.

The attitudes expressed in some are paternalistic (or in the case of women, maternalistic?).

The scene and the tone are, in some respects, set by only article by a Papua New Guinean writer, journalism lecturer Kevin Pamba, who reports on a discussion with some village elders at Bilbil village close to Madang on July 2001.

The title of the article is ‘Good Old Taim Blong Masta in Madang’.

The breadth of territory and many of the experiences recalled in the book, together with the prominent part that outstations and patrolling played in the period of Australian administration, reinforce the same nostalgic theme.

The notably discordant note is, in fact, struck in one of the most recent articles in the book, which takes up a related theme in a different way.

The author, Peter Ryan served behind enemy lines on the Huon Peninsula in 1942-43.

His bravery is recorded in the frequently reprinted Fear Drive My Feet, the ambitious, impressive Encyclopedia of Papua New Guinea (to which, for the sake of transparency, I am proud to declare I was a contributor).

But here, Peter Ryan provides an angry critique of the Australian Labor Party’s policies towards Papua New Guinea and what he regards as the disaster of premature independence.

His contribution takes little account of the circumstances of decolonization.

Neither the tone nor the topic of the article fit in well with the rest of the book.

The article is, in fact, simply a reprint of one that originally appeared in The Australian newspaper in 1995, and caused both criticisms and offence then.

The name of the journal was chosen to mark the willingness of retirees from the two rival prewar administrations to make a common cause over their superannuation and other entitlements by working together through a single organization.

The passage of time has now been additionally marked by the recent decision to swell the thinning ranks of the retirees by opening membership to others who may be interested in Papua New Guinea, and renaming the organization ‘the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia’.

The book records a variety of experiences, generally recollected in the tranquility of retirement, by a cross-section of former Australian residents of Papua New Guinea.

Clearly written, skillfully edited and imaginatively produced, the volume contains a good selection of short articles which can be used as primary sources for the social history of the Australian presence in Papua New Guinea during the colonial period.

Most of the articles can also be read with interest and pleasure for the sake of the characters, scenes and events they describe, and the mixture of humorous, frightening and other true stories they tell.


aussie 05-07-2003 09:56 AM

1 Attachment(s)
Editors Note : If you would like to join Russel Eroro (PNG Trekking Ltd - 100% nationally owned company) on a Kokoda Trek out on the kokoda trail, please log onto our newly constructioned website :

or CLICK HERE to be taken directly to the website :

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Bussy 05-07-2003 07:55 PM

Thanks Aussie, and thanks Ted, for the great book review.
Now I've got to get hold of the book.
Pity we don't have any decent bookstores here any more!

Belihevi 01-08-2003 12:52 AM

Ted, weren't you involved in the drawing up of the constitution?

Belihevi 01-08-2003 12:54 AM

Dispela samting hia, "Newbie - Still Shy"? Emi wonem samting? Mi no save long en! 8-)

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