Making History Module Essay by: Gabriela Valenzuela

This essay will discuss a patrol conducted within a six-mile radius of Wapenamanda which is located in the Lower Lai Valley of the Western Highlands. Robert A. Wright was the patrol officer and he was accompanied by five constables and one interpreter. The patrol occurred during a 15-day period, from the 17th September 1956 to the 1st October 1956, and this was the first patrol that was conducted in the area since 1954. The purpose of the patrol was to conduct a census check and perform general administration tasks. In addition to this, Wright provided details on agriculture and livestock, health and diets, missions and education, infrastructure including roads and bridges, and women’s rights in relation to marriage and conception.

Bureaucratic insights

Prior to the patrol report completed by Wright, there is correspondence about the report between A.A. Roberts, the Director of the Department of Native Affairs (hereinafter Director) and R.I. Skinner, the District Commissioner. This is of interest due to it providing greater insight into what is of importance to the colonial administration during 1956 and 1957.

Bernard Cohn identified the investigative modalities that is present in colonial administrations,[1] and in regards to the Wapenamanda report, generating enumerative data was the focus. Cohn determined that the enumerative modality objectifies ‘social, cultural, and linguistic differences among the peoples’ by reducing them to statistical information.[2] Despite Cohn’s focus being on the British colonisation of India, the Australian administration had appropriated similar methods to achieve the goal of creating a numeric picture of the New Guinean population.

The focus with the enumerative is highlighted when examining the District Commissioner’s focus on the census data regarding infantile morbidity and the numbers of women living in the sub-district. He was concerned because the death rate was quite high and the birth rate was ‘comparatively low for a Highlands census’.[3] The District Commissioner also determined that despite the increased number of people participating in the census, ‘a number of females are still not appearing for census’.[4] His solution was to set up more census points, in other words, attempt to collect more enumerative data in hopes of achieving a “true check” of the population and demystifying the comparative rate of births to death. This being presented as the sole solution indicates that there was little attention placed on the social and medical wellbeing of the women in the area when collecting accurate data is the focus. As Cohn identified, the conflation of communities into statistics provides insight into the priorities of the colonial administration.

The facets of development

From the information provided by Wright, the communities that he visited had access to agricultural crops that produced an adequate quantity of goods; there was construction of main roads and durable walking tracks; and a hospital and educational opportunities at nearby Missions. No information was provided in regards to the housing situation of the local communities other than Wright’s opinion of the rest houses’ condition where he would stay.[5]

Terence Hays identified what the colonial administration were focused on in order to achieve development in the New Guinean Highlands: ‘missions, afforestation programs, labour recruiting, cash-crop introductions, and the building of roads’.[6] The area around Wapenamanda had Lutheran and Baptist missions, and the Wapenamanda-Mount Hagen road was in construction, but no progress was made on the other areas. Wright had provided information in his report on the possibilities of initiating afforestation and cash-crop programs, however, he considered them to be unfeasible due to the infancy of the plantations, and the produce was only sufficient to feed the local communities.

The situation regarding livestock was quite dire, with the exception of the pig, but this was not a surprise to Wright due to it being a typical occurrence in the sub-district. Mohammad Anas submitted an article to The Geographical Review in 1960, and he reported that the Australian administration had determined that the establishment of a livestock industry was not possible in the Highlands due to the heavy rainfall and ‘the shortage of extensive ranges’ for the cattle and/or sheep to roam.[7] Anas’ article indicates that the information that is provided in patrol reports had an active influence on the decisions that the colonial administration enacted in the Highlands.

Roads were an integral component in achieving development in the New Guinean Highlands in the eyes of the colonial administration. Within the report, Wright provided an extensive discussion on the status of roads and walking tracks, and there were a few reasons for this. Areas within the Lower Lai Valley were difficult to reach despite the walking tracks, even when they had been reinforced by timber super-structure overlays. Constructing roads would make patrolling easier and more efficient as it would reduce the instances of the patrol being put on hold whilst waiting for repairs to be completed.[8]

However, ease of transport was not the sole reason for constructing roads throughout the Highlands. Anas summarised the importance as follows: a ‘road extends the influence of the administration; it is a means by which the government reaches the people; it is a symbol of administrative authority.’[9] This position towards roads is justified by the facets of development that Hays identified, whereby having constructed roads was an indication of development. The implied assumption within this is that once an area is developed, they are indoctrinated into being under colonial guidance, or, rather, control.

During Wright’s diary entry, he wrote that he had spoken to the local community ‘on the desirability of better walking tracks in the area’,[10] indicating that Wright was seeking engagement with the administration’s actions. August Ibrum Kituai discussed the responsibilities of the patrol officer in Papua New Guinea and determined that patrol officers ‘as agents of the administration or as individuals, wielded enormous power.’[11] This power was exerted through mediating between the administration and the local communities, however, it was the engagement of the villagers that determined whether the patrol officer succeeded or failed in his endeavours.[12] Whilst the construction of roads was a physical representation of the colonial administration’s influence, the participation of the villagers was essential if Wright was going to be able to initiate the construction of said roads.

            Despite Wright’s awareness of the power held with community engagement, his patrol was determined by his superiors to have been rushed. Due to the report including the correspondence between the Director and the District Commissioner, the bureaucratic interactions of the colonial administration are accessible. The Director highlighted the importance of patrolling, and in agreement, the District Commissioner summarised that patrolling is important because it ‘gives the average citizen a chance of coming face to face with an officer and communicating directly with him other than during court processes’; and provides the officer ‘with an unparalleled opportunity of becoming acquainted with the rank and file and adequate time for this should be allocated on such patrols.’[13] In addition to this communication being sent to the Director, it was forwarded  onto Wright’s Assistant District Officer, as he was the one that guided Wright into fulfilling the administration’s requirements.

The other facet of development that Hays identified is missions and what their importance in the colonial agenda. Wright mentioned two missions in his report, the New Guinea Lutheran Mission at Mambisanda, and the Australian Baptist Mission near the Government Base Camp at Lumis. In the appendix of the report, there is a brief mention of another Lutheran Mission located at Yaramanda but this will not be included in the discussion.

            The New Guinea Lutheran Mission had completed the ‘erection and fitting out of a fully-equipped hospital’[14] at the time of the report. The ‘European-type wards and a doctor’s residence’ were still under construction, and ‘on the completion of these, work is to commence on a residence to house three nursing sisters.’[15] The mission was focused solely on building and medical work, but Wright says that they are ‘severely handicapped by the lack of a doctor’,[16] however, there were attempts to source one from the U.S.A. The District Commissioner was very impressed with the Lutheran Mission and this was because the hospital and adjacent buildings were to be supplied with energy from the Hydro-Electric plant ‘situated on the junction of the Lai and Timina rivers.’[17] He stated that the ‘Hospital and Hydro-Electric Plant at Mambisanda ‘set examples which could be emulated with great advantage’.[18] Whilst they did not participate in the secular activities of the patrol officer, the missionaries tended to be the continual Western contact for a lot of communities.[19] In addition to this, the Lutheran Missions were ‘rapidly building practical institutions – health services, education, [and] commerce’ at the expense of constructing a church.[20] This meant that the cost of construction was the missions’ responsibility[21] yet the colonial administration benefited from the social influence that such buildings generated.

            The other mission that Wright was in contact with during his patrol was the Australian Baptist Mission. This mission did not have any significant construction occurring due to its focus being on education and medicine. General medical treatment is available at the Baptist Mission for the local community and ‘a nursing sister runs a clinic for child welfares well as pre- and postnatal care.’[22]

The Baptist Mission educated ‘roughly twenty youths and English is spoken exclusively in class’ which is ‘in accordance with the recent Circular Instruction issued by the Department of Education.’[23] This policy was initiated in the mid-1950s in order to have the education include the teaching of secular skills, and to make English the official language of New Guinea.[24] Courtney Handman published a book examining Christianity’s role in Papua New Guinea and stated that missionaries ‘felt betrayed by the administration that had up until that point backed and often depended upon the mission’.[25] Even if the missions were displeased, they had to adhere to the new policy lest they invoked the administration limiting their movement and actions.[26] In his book on Australia’s involvement in Papua New Guinea, Hank Nelson wrote about the missionaries’ push into the Highlands and the cultural influence as a result. He touched upon the inevitable tension that existed between the colonial administration and the missions due to the ‘separate systems of law, advice and patronage.’[27] However, due to the administration being the governing body, their systems of authority were the ones that would trump the missions’.

The components of significance in Wright’s report outlined what the colonial administration were interested in developing. Using Hays’ list, the area surrounding Wapenamanda had accomplished two components, the construction of roads and missions. Despite there not being any cash-crops or afforestation programs, the agricultural situation meant that the local communities had access to an ample amount of produce and there were no reports of malnutrition. Whilst revenue could not be made off agriculture, the health of the communities meant that their labour could be utilised at other locations in the Highlands if the administration deemed profitable.

Patrol officer perspective

Due to the patrol report being composed of written notes, it provides insight into Wright’s perspective about what he considered to be significant, even when it did not align with the administration’s colonial interests. An instance that will be focused on in this section is Wright’s concern towards young girls and their health.

            As noted earlier in this essay, there is discussion regarding high instances of infantile deaths and the low birth rate that was occurring in the patrolled area. While Wright provided the statistical figures for this, his attention was focused towards the social practices that could have predetermined this occurrence. Wright wrote that despite the ‘practice of actual child-marriage appears to have been abandoned’, young girls are still being ‘presented as “wives”’ because they have ‘just reached puberty.’[28] He occurs to have been incredibly frustrated by this because despite the communities being ‘fully aware of the manner and nature of conception and seem to have learned the inadvisability of conceiving at too young an age,’[29] these girls were still getting married. He does note that due to the knowledge of the dangers associated with having children at a young age, the girls in these marriages were reluctant to ‘have relations with her husband until she feels herself ready to bear his children.’[30]

While Wright wrote on this topic for quite some time out of concern and frustration, it is interesting to see the women’s empowerment associated with having education around conception. If what Wright has reported is accurate, a balance was being achieved between continuing social practices and the young girls participating in them because of their scientific knowledge of the female reproductive system.

Wright’s concern for the young girls provides a contrast to the administration’s disregard for the information unless it was provided in a numerical figure. To provide some statistical information, Wright reported that there were 1,891 females of child-bearing age but only 180 were pregnant at the time of the census. A total of 3,971 females were living in the patrolled areas which meant that 48% were capable of having children but only 0.05% of women were pregnant out of the total population. No information is provided on the age group that determines a woman to be of child-bearing age so there will be a little hypothesising.

            If the instance of young girls marrying once hitting puberty is incredibly widespread, and these girls are conscious of their fatality if bearing children at too young of an age, perhaps this could explain the low pregnancy numbers. The numbers at least reflect the awareness of the risks whereby only 6 women were reported to have died during childbirth prior to the census being conducted. Alternatively, there may be a specific time of year that is common to conceive and this did not coincide with when Wright completed his patrol. Theories such as these do not seem to have been considered by the District Commissioner as a result of the investigative modality that occurs to have been the focus for the colonial administration. Through a comparison of the colonial administration’s priorities and the topics within the patrol report, Wright’s perspective about the communities he interacted with can be interpreted.

Colonial common sense

Within the patrol report and related administration correspondence, there are unspoken assumptions about the New Guinean people and their social interactions that can be explained through considering it as the ‘colonial common sense’. Frequently, there are discussions or mentions about inter-community conflict and the requirement of administration mediating. Francis P.V. Robb was the Assistant District Officer who provided a brief summary of Wright’s report and he was responsible for transferring the report to the District Commissioner. In his summary, he was pleased to announce that ‘so little trouble exists in the area’ despite the under-patrolling that has occurred in the past. [31] Wright wrote that his ‘patrol was without incident’ and was ‘pleasant’ during the fifteen days of travel.[32] There were no incidents of violence so the focus could be on patrolling and the ‘consolidation of Administration influence’[33] in the Lower Lai Valley area.  The assumption here is that the local communities were incapable of living cohesively unless there was a patrol officer in the area to mediate issues.

            In addition to this, the administration appointed village officials in order to increase the instances of peaceful co-habitation. There were three officials in the area, however, due to the ‘loosely-knit political system’ and the ‘lack of an over-all sense of unity and cohesion’, the officials’ authority was less than ‘desired’.[34] Wright’s perspective was that a ‘great deal of backing-up by the patrol officer is still necessary to maintain obedience by the natives to the lawful orders of the village official.’[35] He assumed that the lack of community interest in the village officials was the cause behind disputes. This seems to have been accepted on face value by his superiors which indicates that they shared a similar assumption regarding the temperament of the local communities.

The Wapenamanda perspective

The colonial common sense removes the agency of the people living in the patrolled areas, and how the role of the patrol officer was perceived. To decipher the New Guinean experience and perspective during the patrolling can be uncovered through reading between the lines. Nicholas Thomas provided a definition for ethnographic history in The Oxford Companion to Australian History, and in it, he determined that this form of historical investigation is common with topics on colonial settlement. The components to it include engaging with the written word, the intent behind these words, and the ‘different vantage points’ that this invokes.[36]

In Kituai’s discussion on the role of the patrol officer in New Guinea with a focus on the perspective of the local communities, he quoted Nelson who said that the patrol officers ‘had extraordinary powers […] he was everything. He was almost God’s shadow on earth’.[37] The patrol officer was also seen as a ‘multi powered boss’.[38] Since the patrol officer was recognised to have immense power and influence, perhaps the reason why the administration perceived the local communities to be incapable of resolving interpersonal conflicts was because the people chose to engage with the patrol officers in this way.

            Kituai explained that the relationship between patrol officer and village ‘disturbed traditional foundations and demanded modifications.’[39] This could explain why Wright had an interaction whereby ‘a delegation came forward shortly after the patrol’s arrival and requested that some appointments [of village officials] be made tentatively’.[40] Due to the social upheaval that the patrol officer caused, requesting guidance from him could be perceived to have helped ease the transition towards participating in colonial society. The interpretations presented here and in Kituai’s work about the perspective that New Guineans had towards the patrol officers was done through reading against the grain.

Conclusion

The patrol conducted in and around Wapenamanda by Robert A. Wright provided insight into the investigative modality of enumerative data collection that underpinned the District Commissioner’s interest in the patrol report. The stage of development that the local communities had achieved as a result of colonial intervention was analysed, and it was determined that, according to Hays outline, the sub-district had not achieved “complete” development. What they had achieved was an agricultural system that yielded plenty of food to feed the people, main roads were in construction, and missions in the vicinity that provided medical care and educational opportunities. In addition to the report providing insight into the colonial administration’s focus, the perspective of Wright was interpreted through the extensive reporting on the occurrence of girls marrying at a young age. There was an assumption by Wright and his superiors that was considered to be the ‘colonial common sense’ that tells these Australian men that New Guinean people are incapable of living cohesively unless there is a white man to mediate the inter-village interactions. The fact that they were all pleasantly surprised that the communities were living peacefully indicates that the common sense is based upon hierarchical assumptions about race. Through reading against the grain, a discussion surrounding the perspective of the communities that Wright interacted with was inferred to “explain” the behaviours that was reported.

Bibliography

Anas, Mohammad, ‘The Highlands of Australian New Guinea’, Geographical Review, vol. 50, no. 4, 1960, pp. 467-490, JSTOR [online database], accessed 2nd September 2020. 

Campbell, I.C., ‘The ASOPA Controversy: A Pivot of Australian Policy for Papua and New Guinea’, The Journal of Pacific History, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 83-99, EBSCOhost [online database], accessed 19 September 2020.

Cohn, Bernard S., ‘Introduction’, Colonialism and its Form of Knowledge: The British in India, Princeton University Press, 1996, pp. 3-15, <https://hdl-handle-net.ezproxy-f.deakin.edu.au/2027/heb.01826>, accessed 15 August 2020.

Handman, Courtney, ‘Sacred Speakers or Scared Groups: The Colonial Lutheran Mission in New Guinea’, Critical Christianity: Translation and Denominational Conflict in Papua New Guinea, University of California Press, Oakland, California, 2015 pp. 41-63, EBSCOhost [online database], accessed 2 October 2020.

Hays, Terence E., ‘One: A Historical Background to Anthropology in the Papua New Guinea Highlands’, in Ethnographic Presents: Pioneering Anthropologists in the Papua New Guinea Highlands, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 1-36, EBSCOhost [online database], accessed 19 September 2020. 

Kituai, August Ibrum, ‘The Role of the Patrol Officer in Papua New Guinea’, My Gun, My Brother: The World of the Papua New Guinea Colonial Police, 1920-1960, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998, pp. 19-41, JSTOR [online database], accessed 17 September 2020. 

Nelson, Hank, ‘5. On Patrol’, Taim Bilong Masta: The Australian Involvement with Papua New Guinea, Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1982, pp. 51-56, <https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/126312>, accessed 19 September 2020.

———— ’18: The Mission Rush’, Taim Bilong Masta: The Australian Involvement with Papua New Guinea, Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1982, pp. 157-163, <https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/126312>, accessed 19 September 2020.

Robert A. Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives and Public Records Services of Papua New Guinea (hereinafter National Archives of PNG), Patrol Reports, Western Highlands District, Wapenamanda, vol. 3, <https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb23226504>, accessed 13 September 2020. 

Scragg, Roy, ‘Science and Survival in Paradise’, Health and History, vol. 12, no. 2, 2010, pp. 57-78, EBSCOhost [online database], accessed 19 September 2020. 

Sinclair, James, ‘Chapter 9: The Missions’, Middle Kingdom: A Colonial History of the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, Goolwa: Crawford House Publishing, 2016, pp. 73-78.

Thomas, Nicholas, ‘Ethnographic History’, in G. Davison, J. Hirst & S. Macintyre, eds., The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Oxford University Press, 2003 (online).


[1] Bernard S. Cohn, ‘Introduction’, Colonialism and its Form of Knowledge: The British in India, Princeton University Press, 1996, pp. 3-15, <https://hdl-handle-net.ezproxy-f.deakin.edu.au/2027/heb.01826>, accessed 15 August 2020.

[2] Cohn, ‘Introduction’, p. 8.

[3] Robert A. Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives and Public Records Services of Papua New Guinea (hereinafter National Archives of PNG), Patrol Reports, Western Highlands District, Wapenamanda, vol. 3, <https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb23226504>, accessed 13 September 2020. 

[4] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[5] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[6] Terence E. Hays, ‘One: A Historical Background to Anthropology in the Papua New Guinea Highlands’, in Ethnographic Presents: Pioneering Anthropologists in the Papua New Guinea Highlands, Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 22, EBSCOhost [online database], accessed 19 September 2020.

[7] Mohammad Anas, ‘The Highlands of Australian New Guinea’, Geographical Review, vol. 50, no. 4, 1960, p. 483, JSTOR [online database], accessed 2nd September 2020. 

[8] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[9] Anas, ‘The Highlands of Australian New Guinea’, p. 481.

[10] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[11] Kituai, August Ibrum, ‘The Role of the Patrol Officer in Papua New Guinea’, My Gun, My Brother: The World of the Papua New Guinea Colonial Police, 1920-1960, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998, p. 19, JSTOR [online database], accessed 17 September 2020. 

[12] Kituai, ‘The Role of the Patrol Officer’, p. 34.

[13] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[14] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[15] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[16] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[17] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[18] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[19] Hank Nelson, ‘18: The Mission Rush’, Taim Bilong Masta: The Australian Involvement with Papua New Guinea, Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1982, pp. 157-163, <https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/126312>, accessed 19 September 2020.

[20] Courtney Handman, ‘Sacred Speakers or Scared Groups: The Colonial Lutheran Mission in New Guinea’, Critical Christianity: Translation and Denominational Conflict in Papua New Guinea, University of California Press, Oakland, California, 2015 p. 55, EBSCOhost [online database], accessed 2 October 2020.

[21] Nelson, ‘The Mission Rush’, p. 162.

[22] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[23] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[24] Handman, ‘Sacred Speakers or Scared Groups’, p. 48.

[25] Handman, p. 50.

[26] Nelson, ‘The Mission Rush’, p. 159.

[27] Nelson, p. 162.

[28] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[29] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[30] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[31] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[32] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[33] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[34] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[35] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

[36] Nicholas Thomas, ‘Ethnographic History’, in G. Davison, J. Hirst & S. Macintyre, eds., The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Oxford University Press, 2003 (online).

[37] Kituai, ‘The Role of the Patrol Officer’, p. 19.

[38] Kituai, p. 19.

[39] Kituai, p. 37.

[40] Wright, Wapenamanda Patrol no. 1 of 1956/1957, 17 Sep —1 Oct 1956, National Archives of PNG.

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