Friday, July 25, 2008

Missionaries, Headhunters & Colonial Officers

James Chalmers was the so-called “Livingstone of New Guinea”.
He was a star in the London Missionary Society’s firmament.
For 34 years from the 1860s onwards he preached the Gospel in the South Seas.
He also loved whisky, enjoyed exploring the unknown territory and had a genuine rapport with the Papuan people.
But not even this charisma and courage could save him when late in his career he and his party were lured into an ambush on Goaribari Island.
They were beheaded and eaten by the natives.
It is the Goaribari incident that lies at the heart of Peter Maiden’s extraordinary history of what was then British New Guinea.
This is a history that proves that fact is indeed stranger than fiction.
Sorcery, magic, head-hunting and cannibalism were rife.
To possess a skull collection was to enhance one’s standing in the spirit world.
In 1901, on Goaribari Island alone, a missionary, Harry Dauncey, found about 10,000 skulls in the island’s Long Houses.
The second half of Maiden’s history focuses on the career and tragic end of the very first Australian-born governor of British New Guinea, the Brisbane solicitor Christopher Robinson.
He arrived in BNG in May 1903 and soon afterwards witnessed a savage conflict between the native constabulary and Papuan warriors.
In March 1904, Governor Robinson committed a catastrophic error in the Goaribari Affray.
June 9th, 1903, was a proud day for Queenslanders in general, but most particularly for the people of Brisbane, for that day the Australian Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, had appointed a local man, 30-year-old Christopher Robinson, as acting-governor of British New Guinea (BNG).
Robinson spent practically all his life in Brisbane, settling here as a five-year-old boy, after his father became rector of All Saints, Brisbane in 1878.
Christopher was educated in Brisbane, and then articled to T. W. Daly, a Brisbane solicitor.
A clever student, Robinson graduated top of his year and was admitted as a solicitor in 1895.
He practiced law briefly on the Etheridge and Croydon goldfields, before returning to Brisbane where he took up a private practice in 1898.
He was a handsome and highly presentable bachelor and the first Australian born governor of BNG.
However, it was a difficult assignment and despite his legal skills Robinson was quite inexperienced.
For this shortcoming he was to pay a terrible price.
In 1903, Britain was in the process of passing control of BNG to the Australian government and the colony’s administrators, operating on a shoestring budget, faced fearful difficulties.
Sorcery, cannibalism and headhunting were endemic in Papuan society.
Sorcery was a criminal offence but still it flourished.
Its practitioners “spoke” directly to the Spirit World and could simply frighten a Papuan to death.
A sorcerer had only to tap his victim on the shoulder, tell him he would soon die and within a week the unfortunate native would be in his grave.
And these magicians seemed omnipotent.
In 1903, for instance, a disgruntled sorcerer in eastern New Guinea announced that within three days he was turning every man in the village into a woman, and every woman into a man.
The men were panic stricken, New Guinea being such a male dominated society, but, as the investigating white magistrate observed, “the women viewed the threat with supreme complacency”.
Headhunting was another obsession.
To possess a skull collection was to enhance one’s standing in the spirit world.
In 1901, on Goaribari Island in the Gulf of Papua, a missionary, Harry Dauncey, found 10,000 skulls in the island’s Long Houses.
Even as late as 1957, Australian government officials on one occasion confiscated 78 skulls on Papua’s Casuarina Coast.
Fortunately, cannibalism was not quite as widely practiced.
As one writer, Wilfred Beaver, pointed out, “the population would eventually be reduced to small proportions”, if everybody was a cannibal.
The weakest tribes were most vulnerable.
West of Port Moresby the Mohohai tribe, according to Beaver, was regarded as “a kind of larder” for the predatory Ukiaravi warriors.
Elsewhere, the Scottish missionary, James Chalmers, newly arrived at Suau in 1878, was pleased to be invited to his first tribal feast – before learning that a terrified young boy was on the menu.
Chalmers, the so-called “Livingstone of New Guinea” was a star in the London Missionary Society’s firmament.
For 34 years he served in the South Seas islands as a near-perfect example of “muscular Christianity”.
Chalmers was a physically impressive man with a commanding presence and he possessed a cool head in a dangerous situation.
He liked whisky, loved exploring the magnificent countryside and had a genuine, albeit paternal affection for the Papuan people.
But for a white man, life in New Guinea was anything but a sinecure.
‘If a man escaped dying of fever in the first three weeks he was eaten by cannibals within the fourth week’, wrote Wilfred Beaver.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, even the humble toothache could be a major problem.
With dental help thousands of kilometres away, treatment could be crude: “A red-hot wire jammed into the gum, or a crystal of crude carbolic inserted into the raging stump.”
Murder and massacres were commonplace.
In 1900 a single government patrol led by the ex-Queensland policeman, turned magistrate, William Armit, killed at least 54 natives on the Upper Kumusi River.
In 1901 Alexander Elliot’s constables killed 42
On another patrol, magistrate Allan Walsh’s men disposed of 32 more Papuans in 1902, and in 1903, Whitmore ‘Old Shoot and Loot’ Monckton, a highly regarded magistrate, allowed his constables to kill 18 Paiwa natives.
Of course, the Papuan warriors, too, were aggressive.
Numerous lonely miners and missionaries met with a grisly end, most notably in 1901 when the Reverend Chalmers’ party of 12 was lured into an ambush on Goaribari Island.
There they were beheaded and eaten by natives.
This atrocity demanded revenge and more than 20 Goaribaris were killed in a government reprisal raid.
Soon after arriving in BNG, Christopher Robinson joined a government patrol along the Yodda River and saw at first hand the savage conflict between the native constabulary and Papuan warriors.
This patrol appears to have soured Robinson’s attitude towards the Papuans.
Afterwards, Robinson seemed to show little sympathy to the indigenous population.
He once declared that he had “an intense loathing” for these “inhuman creatures”.
He had no friends among the colourful Port Moresby expatriates and he was overwhelmed by a monumental backlog of work.
Robinson was capable and one local identity described him as ‘one of the most promising officers New Guinea ever possessed’.
Others, though, believed he was arrogant, and even frightened by the very people he was supposed to be protecting.
In March 1904 Robinson led a strongly armed commando to Goaribari, intent on arresting those responsible for the Chalmers’ missionary massacre.
Unfortunately his serious mismanagement of a confrontation with the Goaribaris became the subject of a sensational Royal Commission in Sydney in July.
While the native bowmen fired only a handful of arrows in anger, Robinson’s men replied with a murderous fusillade of 250 rounds.
At least eight natives were shot dead and two European witnesses testified that the governor had shot at least three of the Papuans.
Robinson’s career prospects were in tatters.
The lonely young governor, now afflicted with a severe bout of malaria lost heart and fell into a mood of deep depression that worsened as the date of the Royal commission approached.
Finally, on June 20th, 1904, Robinson took his own life under the flagpole at government house, Port Moresby.
This is a history that makes the clash of the proselytising white colonials with the Papuan warriors come vividly alive.
It is a story of dedication and courage, but also a story of tragic failure.
A riveting read.

Missionaries, Cannibals and Colonial Officers
British New Guinea and the Goaribari Affair 1860s-1907
Written by Peter Maiden
Central Queensland University Press RRP $25.95


  1. Anonymous4:29 AM

    Great post from of a historic prospective ... I've linked to your post from Albinos seeking police protection after series of horrific witchcraft killings as your post provides a broader prospective.

  2. You are most welcome.