Follow my fellowship III: ‘The mountain cannot speak’

Follow my fellowship III: ‘The mountain cannot speak’

Visiting a place one intends to write about makes an immense difference. It really does. I spent three weeks in Papua New Guinea [PNG] in September trying to get a feel for the country that Australia ‘ruled’ as a colony from 1905 – that was Papua – and a territory from 1919, New Guinea. PNG came into being in 1949. The trip was background for my upcoming history of Australia and the Pacific. The CH Currey Fellowship from the State Library of New South Wales certainly helped to fund it; PNG is an expensive place to visit.

I was four days in Rabaul trying quickly to get a sense of the town which the Germans built in 1910 as the capital of their Pacific colony, the Australians took over in 1914 and made the centre of their League of Nations Mandate from 1919, the Japanese captured in January 1942 as the forward base of their Pacific campaign and the Australians reclaimed in 1945. What was left of old town after Allied bombing was destroyed 49 years later by a volcanic eruption. Four days was not long enough but I covered a lot of ground and had read up in preparation.

The papers of Kenneth Thomas, copied from the Pacific Manuscript Bureau collection and held at the State Library of New South Wales, describe the town encountered by a cadet patrol officer in 1927. The young Thomas headed straightaway to Rabaul’s ‘Chinatown’ area to be fitted out with his khakis from the tailor Chong Hing. He bought his helmet from Burns Philp, the Australian shipping and trading firm which dominated ‘Australia’s Pacific’ before the war, and for a time afterwards.

Rabaul looking south west from the hills above Blanche Bay, 2019

The Library also holds the original ‘War Diary’ of Jock Maclean who, as a planter, evacuated his family to Australia in late 1941 when news of war with Japan spread; ‘Many people were about, rushing from one place to another. Everyone seemed dazed’. His family farewelled, Maclean then escaped the Japanese invasion in January with a trek and boat journey to Buna, the very place where the Japanese would later land before the ‘Battle of Kokoda’. It is tempting to describe Maclean’s ordeal as extraordinary but, in 1942, it wasn’t.

The Australian writer Ian Townsend has told the awful story of the execution of 11-year-old Dickie Manson with his mother and her defacto partner at the hands of the Japanese in his book Line of Fire. The American historian Bruce Gamble wrote three books on wartime Rabaul, including Fortress Rabaul which I found really useful. It is also unusual to read an American take on an Australian story. Brett Evans wrote and presented the radio documentary ‘Last Letters’ which told of the Japanese mail drop of letters over Port Moresby written by prisoners captured in Rabaul. What might have been a rare act of humanitarianism by the Japanese turned out to be a more typical expression of cruelty. The prisoners were already dead.

Plaque honouring 2/22 Battalion dead at Bita Paka Cemetery Rabaul. Their bodies lie elsewhere, 2019

That was home work, but on the ground one really needs a good local guide to suggest places of interest and get to them, particularly if time is short. I am so grateful to the Rabaul Hotel, which survived the eruption, for their useful suggestions. I am so very appreciative of local historian Albert Koni who then took me to Japanese tunnels, airfields, wrecks, museums, execution sites and a submarine base. There I snorkelled along a reef drop off before entering two of five tunnels dug into the volcanic cliff face to store supplies for the subs. The last leg of our adventure had us crunching across the red and black beach of volcanic gravel towards the mountain that erupted and the site of Dickie Manson’s execution, a place identified by Albert after talking to a local man who learned Japanese during the war.

Albert Koni in front of the volcano which destroyed old Rabaul, 2019

Albert Koni was born in Rabaul, the main centre of East New Britain. His parents were from the Sepik region on the mainland but he claims local Tolai identity by birthright and is recognised as Tolai by others. He trained and worked locally as a butcher and only came to history late in life. Albert takes tours with passengers from the cruise ships that occasionally visit. It must have taken some courage to make that career shift. Albert is deputy president of the local historical society which uses the old New Guinea Club as its headquarters and museum. The pre-war Club was racially exclusive, as were all of Rabaul’s places of entertainment during the Australian administration. I’m not sure if there is irony there but it is certainly poignant. Albert has never studied history formally but his knowledge is extensive. It is matched by his passion and his love for Australia, somewhere he has never visited. That one of his family was tortured by the Japanese has influenced that affection. But he also believes Australia brought modernity to New Britain, and that was a good thing. Albert is a proud Parramatta Eels supporter and wears the football team’s anniversary cap to prove it.

Japanese writing on the wall of the command post known as ‘Admiral Yamamato’s Bunker’, 2019

The story of Rabaul during World War Two is Albert’s special interest. He is quite right in believing this is barely known let alone understood in Australia. The battle of Kokoda has been elevated in the Australian collective consciousness so that it rivals, almost, the mythic status of Gallipoli and the Anzacs. But despite the books and broadcasts few who don’t have personal connections with Rabaul, family who served there for instance, know about the tragic story of the abandonment of the 2/22 Infantry Battalion who defended the town along with a few ineffective aircraft and other defence personnel. This was one of the island ramparts that Prime Minister Billy Hughes fought for after World War One. It was, consequently, given to Australia as a Mandated to manage and develop ethically. The men at Rabaul were an ‘advanced observation line’ on that rampart. In the event of an invasion they were to ‘make the enemy fight for [that] line’ in the words of the Australian Chiefs of Staff. But even before the outbreak of war those men knew that the garrison could not withstand the scale of attack that the Japanese could mount. They were right. The defenders of Rabaul were doomed from the start. More than 100 were bayonetted to death by the Japanese with their hands tied behind their backs. A similar number of Tolai people were taken to Papua as forced labour on the Kokoda campaign. I suspect few of them returned.

Albert leads me down to a Japanese hospital tunnel, recently discovered, 2019

I asked Albert why he was so interested in history and he came back with something quite poetic and unexpected: ‘The mountain cannot speak’. It is up to people to do the talking, he said. And then cryptically ‘History will sustain you’. The puzzle that is our past will never, of course, be completely reconstructed or understood. But trying to put some of the puzzle pieces together sustains me too.

Thanks Albert.





Follow my Fellowship I: ‘Men of the right stamp’: The Royal Geographical Society of Australasia and exploring New Guinea

I am fortunate enough to be the CH Currey Fellow at the State Library of New South Wales this year. Charles Herbert Currey had dedicated his life to the teaching and writing of history and, in 1970, he left a large part of his estate to the Library to promote the study of history through original sources.

I put my hand up to look at the Library’s Pacific collection – in particular non-indigenous Australian writing about the surrounding islands in the period 1870-1970 when some began to think of their country as the natural regional power, the nation indeed acquired a colony and a protectorate in New Guinea, fought a war against the Japanese there and ultimately had to manage the transition of its dependency to independence – among other things. Since colonial times Australia’s relationship to its near Pacific neighbours has oscillated from intense interest to ignorance and amnesia. Over the past 20 years historians have been trying to recover what Warwick Anderson has eloquently called ‘our repressed Oceanic memories’. In 2016 Sean Dorney, the veteran reporter of Pacific affairs, criticised the collective forgetting of Australia’s history in Papua New Guinea in a paper to the Lowy Institute called ‘The Embarrassed Colonist’.

This is the first blog about my adventures in the State Library’s Pacific collection and beyond. Hopefully my own book on Australia-Pacific relations (due in 2020) will go some way to curing the amnesia.

I have certainly struck a rich vein of material in the papers of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia established in 1883. That was the heyday of exploration epitomised by the pith-helmeted adventure that became standard fare in ‘Boys’ Own’ journals. David Livingstone, of ‘Stanley and Livingstone’ and ‘Dr Livingstone I presume’ fame, had been elevated to the status of British national hero in 1774. Indeed, the Society’s papers include flyers advertising the ‘First Appearance in Sydney’ of Henry Stanley, ‘The Man who Found Livingstone’, on 30 November 1891. Europeans were heading into Africa, Asia and the Pacific in unprecedented numbers, to convert souls to Christianity (Livingstone was a missionary), discover natural wealth for exploitation, stake out imperial claims and study human diversity.

Flyer advertising the visit of Henry Stanley, from the papers of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, State Library of NSW

The Society’s first meeting to elect officer holders was on 29 May 1883. These were professionals, scientists, and businessmen – I have not yet come across a woman in their ranks. On 23 June its Honorary Secretary, French-born geographer Edmond La Meslée, addressed an audience of 750 with a talk on the short history of exploration in New Guinea – the ‘dark island’. There was still much to know so Meslée also outlined the goals and requirements of an expedition of further exploration. As to who would take part, Meslée suggested that the colonies could readily provide qualified surveyors, medical men and collectors for there was ‘no lack among us of men of the right stamp’.

An illustration from missionary James Chalmers’ 1885 memoir ‘Work and Adventure in New Guinea’ giving the impression of a natural state of primitive chaos. Chalmers was the Society’s first choice to lead their expedition flagged as early as June 1883

It was Meslée’s justification for colonisation that is most interesting. For in this time of competitive imperialism and swirling theories of race, including those influenced by Social Darwinism, he criticised the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ race for its history of violence against ‘natives’ and spoke in terms of the rights of indigenous people. White people had gone wherever there was profit or gold and the outcome for local people was generally poor. The ‘total extinction’ of Tasmania’s Aborigines was cited as a case in point. But with the inexorability of that apparent law of nature, it was incumbent upon any future ‘colonial power’ in New Guinea to protect the ‘natives’ against abuse and exploitation – for ‘humanity’ ‘has its rights’. This surely was an incipient call for the protection of the human rights of indigenous people – though not clearly defined.

Meslée suggested setting up an ‘exploration committee’ to secure funding in the manner of the Royal Geographical Society’s African Exploration Fund of 1877. The colonial newspapers – and there were many regional publications by the 1883 – reported the speech and there followed a stream of unsolicited applications to the Society from eager participants across the continent. (See Sydney Morning Herald 23 June 1883 for a full account of Meslée’s speech)

It was all a bit premature. That funding target was around £5000 and required lobbying the various colonial governments and appealing to companies and the public. The Society quelled expectations of an imminent expedition but set about making it happen.

The general excitement is understandable for New Guinea was news in Australia. In February 1883 Sir Thomas McIlwraith, the Queensland Premier, had asked the Imperial Government to annex the island for Queensland to offset its occupation by Germany. When the British did not bother responding – an interesting indication of their attitude to colonial acquisition – McIlwraith sent his own man up there to raise a flag regardless. The British relented fearing chaos on the colonial periphery, and British New Guinea was created as a protectorate then a possession. It became known as Papua. By then Germany was already present north eastern half of the island. They called it Kaiser Wilhelm Land. Somewhat confusingly this was later known as New Guinea. The Papua New Guinea that exists today is an amalgam of both. The Dutch controlled the western half of the island, what became West Irian Jaya, now West New Guinea or West Papua and under a repressive Indonesian rule – such are the legacies of imperial carve ups.

The British flag went up in November 1884. The Geographical Society promptly suggested that its long-planned expedition could help establish the ‘exact boundary line of the English Protectorate over New Guinea’. It also committed itself to lobbying for the annexation of ‘the whole of New Guinea … to the British Crown’, although that would have meant dislodging the Germans. That didn’t happen but Australia – newly federated in 1901 – was given authority over British New Guinea in 1902. Administration began in 1906. When Britain went to war with Germany in August 1914, Australia’s first military action was expelling German forces – something that was accomplished with pent-up eagerness in September. Australia was given German New Guinea as a League of Nations mandated territory after World War One. Two administrations operated until Papua and New Guinea were formally united under one Australian office in 1949.

What makes the Geographical Society collection so rich, in my mind at least, is the minutiae of expedition organisation it contains. There is an insurance policy for the chartered steam launch covering ‘risk of capture and seizure by the Natives of New Guinea’. There are provisioning lists. It was estimated that a party of 12 Europeans would need 1000 lbs of corned beef, 1200 lbs of tinned beef and fish and a great deal of dried fruit, fish and preserved vegetables for an anticipated six months.

And then there are the letters of application which arrived shortly after the press covered Meslée’s speech. Significantly none that I read expressed or reflected upon the high-mindedness of the stated justification for exploration and colonisation – namely to make amends for the abuses of the past by establishing a benevolent colonial regime. Rather most show an eagerness for adventure or at least an interesting job. One hundred years of Australian colonisation may have turned out ‘men of the right stamp’ if that meant men who could survey the land, shoot, skin and preserve animals, survive in extremes and walk for miles. The self-description ‘bushman’ appeared several times. Many stressed their experience in dealing with ‘natives’. The need to follow orders was widely understood.

JH Shaw, from the Australian Museum had already spent two years in New Guinea and was part of an earlier exploratory expedition headed by veteran New Guinea trader Andrew Goldie who opened the first store on Port Moresby – an example perhaps of the inexorable expansion by ‘Anglo-Saxons’ that Meslée spoke of. His letter read: ‘I may be able to state that from early boyhood I have lived a roving & adventurous life both ashore and afloat… I might mention a practical intimacy with all classes of firearms’. Shaw was chosen.

A. Hammond Page was another veteran of ‘Goldies Collecting Camp’ in 1878. ‘I am not a taxidermist by trade’, he admitted, ‘but am an enthusiastic collector, a good shot, a fair preserver, can live and do well on the toughest fare’. Hammond Page did not make the final selection.

Neither did Arthur Esam, a young adventurer and professional artist from South Australia. He was already an experienced adventurer having accompanied surveying expeditions in Western Australia and travelled to Burke and Wills’ fateful Camp 65 on Cooper Creek to paint the famous carved tree in 1878.

There were many more unsuccessful applications. The Society clearly set a high bar, for another of the rejected hopefuls was Ernest Favenc who could claim to have led the first transcontinental expedition from Blackall to Port Darwin in 1878-79. ‘I am used to a tropical climate’, he wrote, ‘and used to dealing with natives, and could also I think command the services of equally experienced bushmen who have been my comrades before’. Favenc’s failure to secure a place on the New Guinea expedition gave him time to write the popular and influential History of Australian Exploration 1788-1888.

The final list of expedition members with their respective duties and salaries. They were supported by a team of Malays – porters, a carpenter and a cook

The party left for New Guinea  in July 1885. Then in September there were rumours of a massacre up the Fly River. Telegrams and letters went back and forth until the story was disproved but not before the reports had broken in the press. They prompted one ex-Natal Mounted Police officer, Richard Searle, newly-arrived in the colony, to offer his services for a second expedition ‘for the purposes of punishing the natives concerned in the late massacres’. Thankfully that punitive excursion did not take place but Searle’s mentality of swift revenge is palpable and potentially lethal such was his set of martial skills transferred from one frontier to another.

An excerpt from Richard Searle’s letter of October 1885 outlining his qualifications for a punitive expedition


And so the collection lays out the sweep of the colonising mindset, from the humane paternalism of Meslée, who acknowledged the people of New Guinea as humans with rights, to Searle’s eagerness for revenge for a massacre that did not occur. All attitudes of men of the ‘right’, and sometimes wrong, stamp left legacies in the post-colonial age.

More to follow…