A visit with King Cam of Kitava: David P Eyre

I was a Medical Assistant and part of an Anti-TB team that visited the Trobriands to find people with active tuberculosis and to protect susceptible people with BCG vaccine. If my memory serves me correctly, the year was 1965.

The team had travelled from Samarai in the government trawler Hekaha and we conducted surveys in the Woodlarks and on Kiriwina.

It was on Kiriwina that we sought and obtained the approval of the local chief to conduct the survey of his ‘subjects’. This chief was a very dignified gentleman and I have a coloured photograph of him which shows his yam houses and the houses of his many wives. The villages were scrupulously clean and extremely well maintained and a credit to the local people. This paramount chief was known colloquially as the ‘King of the Trobriands’. This was interesting because Cameron of Kitava was known as ‘King Cam of Kitava’.

Our team leader and radiographer was Peter Bailey and he was most interested to visit Kitava so the local doctor on Kiriwina, a Dr Seko, contacted King Cam via the radio skeds and arranged to visit.

We all jumped on board the Hekaha and set out for Kitava. King Cam met us at the wharf in his dilapidated and multi-coloured Landrover. The most noticeable thing about Cameron was his gauntness and his legs which had some sort of strapping on them extending up to his knees. He was very reserved but cordial enough. He tried to make a point that the people on his island were healthy and did not need our team to investigate them. He also told us how the Americans had introduced gonorrhoea during the war and how an anti yaws campaign had the side benefit of clearing this up.

Cam took us on a brief tour of Kitava which didn’t long as it is a very small island. We couldn’t help but be impressed by the neatness of the village houses and indeed the whole plantation. Kitava was a very attractive island and the people were friendly and good natured in stark contrast to some of the surly ‘labour’ we had met at some other plantations. After our Cooks’ Tour, Cam invited us to return in the evening for supper. The only thing I can remember about that supper was that his house servants were all young girls dressed only in the very colourful but very short grass skirts uniquely typical to the Trobriands. When supper was finished all the young girls came in and stood in a line obviously waiting for some ritual to occur. Cam took out a large tin containing lollies and threw handfuls of these in the air with the young girls having to scramble around on the floor to get their fair share.

The next time I met Cam was in the Port Moresby hospital in 1966. My wife at the time was working as a nurse at the hospital and told me that Cam had been admitted. I paid him a visit a couple of times but he seemed to be very distracted. He did mention that he had not wanted to come to Moresby and felt that he would die and wanted to be back on Kitava. I cannot remember him having a heart problem but I do recall he was admitted with a TU (tropical ulcer) on his leg which was not healing. I remember the TU because of his consistent use of leggings and I wondered if somehow they had contributed to the severity of the ulcer.  It was my impression that Cam had died in the Moresby Hospital but it could be that he was repatriated to Kitava.


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