60. ‘Ma Scannell’s Place’, ‘The Bomb Boy’s House’ and an explanation

Paul Quinlivan’s Snapshots


I feel that I should explain a previous reference to ‘Ma Scannell’s Place’ (Snapshot 42) because I do not want anyone to think I was disparaging the lady. On 6 November 1952 I was sent to Wewak to conduct a prosecution in the District Court. Police usually did this but mine was a very special mission because, while I was busily engaged cleaning up the backlog of cases in the New Guinea Islands, the PNG police on a remote out-station on the mainland complained that all the Europeans in their area – the Kiap (John Pearce Cahill), the Medical Assistant (William Mervyn Creighton) and George Gilbert (whose occupation I forget) – were ‘out of control’. The complaint was immediately investigated and, as a result, all three were charged with multiple rapes. In those days rape and murder charges against Europeans had to be heard by an all-White jury despite the complaints by the judges – and the Crown Law Office – that such trials brought the administration of justice into disrepute, as we shall see in a later Snapshot. Despite the fact that Andy O’Driscoll produced overwhelming evidence, Cahill and Gilbert were acquitted but Creighton, the weaker of the three, was convicted and safely moved to gaol in Australia.
The fact that the two stronger characters were free to go wherever they liked was seen as presenting a grave danger so I was sent to Wewak to see if I could get Cahill and Gilbert convicted of ‘common assault’. If I could do that – and there was an abundance of evidence available – they could be immediately deported under the Expulsion of Undesirable Persons Ordinance. There was, however, a very clear danger for me, too, because unpleasant undercurrents had been reported right, left and centre and I was glad that, as at every other place I had gone, I would be billeted in a private house because nobody would seek to harm me in somebody’s home.

When I arrived at Wewak, however, I was met by the District Commissioner who, personally, took me to Ma Scannell’s Place, explaining that he had received strict instructions from Moresby that I was not to be billeted in any Administation Officer’s home during my stay. He added that both Cahill and Gilbert were spending a lot of time at the Sepik Club so I should avoid it. There was nothing I could do but go where I was put but I resented it. My first reaction was based purely on the fact that I find it almost impossible to barge in and talk to people, even those with whom I have been friendly for years. If there is a ‘duty’ to do so, however, shyness does not apply so the fact that I had always been billeted had been sheer bliss. Being deprived of this was hurtful and, as I thought about it, I felt that it was an ‘interference’. Then, as I stewed waiting for the evening meal, I began to ask why such an instruction would be given. Was it because Moresby was afraid I might soft-pedal the prosecution; that my host, being a Kiap, might suborn me! This really riled me, not so much because it was offensive to me but because it was a blanket insult to men and women I had generally found to be good, decent people. So I seethed with rage! But there was more to come!

After the evening meal, two of my fellow guests introduced themselves as professional crocodile shooters ‘in for a week’ to join a friend (for whom they had brought an extra gun, which they showed me) so that the three could go on a croc shoot that evening. But the friend suddenly could not make it and they wondered if I would like to take his place. Realizing that sitting lonesome and wallowing deeper and deeper into resentment would not be good for the clear mind I would need in the morning, I said ‘Yes’ and off we went to the swamps at the bottom of Wewak Hill. After a time, however, I got separated from them. It was very scary, just me in the middle of a tree-filled crocodile-infested swamp but, luckily, a Vanimo policeman named MOI had seen me go off with the two shooters and had followed me. Quietly he led me out to safety and then he let forth a tirade of pidgin. An hour earlier I would have said that I did not understand a word of pidgin but I understood him perfectly and my resentment at Moresby’s instruction grew.

The combined weight of my woes became such that, instead of being gracious when, on my return to Moresby, I was being congratulated for getting Gilbert and Cahill deported I expressed pungent views on the interfering ‘instruction’ and I pointed out that I had come to the Territory to prevent the news of the scandalous backlog of unheard cases leaking out. Also, if there was ever a repetition of the instruction which put me in Ma Scannell’s Place I would pack my bags and catch the next plane back to Australia. I was given an absolute assurance that it would never happen again! That is why, in No. 42, I said: ‘when I was put into Ma Scannell’s at Wewak – something I had been guaranteed the previous year would never happen again – I was sure that we were only overnighting there on our way to Manus’.

There are two other matters I should mention here. The first is that ‘Sepik Robbie’ was waiting for me when the court rose on the first day. He said he had heard what had happened to me the previous night so I should know about ‘the secret centre of life in Wewak’. He took me to the Bomb Boys House which was a wonderful institution created over the years by four or five Bomb Disposal Experts of the Australian Regular Army in their own home. I inhabited it, with a wide variety of other Europeans, when not working in court. The job of these men was the locating, and removing, of the dangerous explosives which were an essential ‘fact of life’ in that area. When the Catholics were building their giant cathedral their first task was not the drawing up of the plans but the clearing of the adjoining ground on which thousands of people would congregate for the Opening Ceremony. Architect’s plans could be got anywhere but the adjoining area was completely overgrown and, since everyone knew that bombs were a basic fact of life, the first priority was putting the area on the list for the Bomb Boys to deal with. The spirit of these men who diced with death every day was wonderful and I would like to pay tribute to them.

The second fact is that, three months after the events I have described, the South Pacific Post reported (13 February 1953) that an appeal by Williams Mervyn Creighton against his conviction for rape had been upheld by the High Court in Australia. I have not read the judgment but, since it was a jury trial, I assume that the appeal was on a procedural matter and not on the facts.


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