Plantation Life by Ralph Sawyer

Plantation Life by Ralph Sawyer

Plantation life is largely the untold story of TPNG.

There are several reasons for this. Plantation owners and managers were practical doers rather than reporters and recorders. Clearing, planting, harvesting and labour management were the main focuses of their lives. They were often physically isolated and felt alienated from the aims of the central Administration. Labour regulations seemed, to many, intrusive and unfair.
The early German and Anglo/ Australian plantations had to contend with dangerous isolation. The post-World War 1 managers had to cope with falling prices. The Second World War largely destroyed plantations and a new start had to be made in the 1950s.

The rush to Independence led to political pressures and uncertainties.  The plantation owners now saw themselves as outsiders and even referred to as “neo colonialists”. Plantations became vulnerable to wholesale takeovers and were no longer investment propositions.

Most retreated and gave up. A few resilient ones with quick feet made the transition to alternative businesses or transformed into native partnerships.

Whatever the outcomes, plantation agriculture, together with government agricultural stations, was instrumental in providing the stock and the skills for indigenous people  to set up their own co-ops and individual cash crop enterprises.


The genesis of Epo Plantation emerged in the person of a colourful character Staniforth Smith. As the ex-Federation member of Kalgoorlie, he came to Papua as the first Director of Agriculture with a staff of three. His ultimate aim was to become Lieutenant Governor but he didn’t take into account Sir Hubert Murray who held that position from 1906 to 1940.

Staniforth Smith went to British Malaya in 1906 to study rubber plantations. In 1907 he started rubber plant nurseries inland from Moresby and invited planters to take advantage of  this new opportunity. Fairfax Harbour Plantations and British

New Guinea Development Company took up the challenge and started plantations.

Epo plantation at the head of Kerema Bay became one of those plantations, with its owner Steamships Trading Company becoming the new flagship, with its distinctive K boats that serviced the Papuan coast for over seventy years.

In 1955 Ray and Bertha Flahavan took over as managers of Epo plantation. They took over from the well-known Ron Preece who had transformed the plantation into a well-oiled operation. Ray employed one hundred highland Chimbu labourers. They were on a two-year contract at three pounds a month, rations and an air fare home. Ray had ten skilled tappers who carefully sliced the bark and dripped the white milk into the jam tins. Ten others collected the latex and cooked it into white sheets which were wrapped into blocks to be shipped out for further processing. Most of the others kept the floor of the plantation clean with sarifs, which were primitive blades made from heavy gauge hoop iron.  Ray had a novel scheme of a fresh food unit who had a daily quota of garden to plant and weed. These bananas, paw-paw and taro plants supplemented their rations of rice, wheatmeal, tinned beef and fish. Most of his workers had shiny skin which Ray put down to their fresh food.

Every morning at seven there was a parade for rations, cooking and lik-lik doctor. Any cuts and abrasions were treated urgently with black ointment and acroflavine to prevent runaway tropical ulcers.  Maybe five were stood down with malaria if they exceeded 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Scabies or grille skin rashes were painted with gentian violet.

Snake bite was the most serious event on the job. Skilled medical attention was hours away and the Papuan Black only left you time for a quick cup of tea. The highlands had no venomous snakes so the Chimbus tended to pick them up for kai kai. Ray put on “dai pinis” pantomimes to emphasise how serious snake bite could be. His standard treatment was generous razor blade slashing, a tight bandage of heavily laced potassium permanganate and lashings of coffee. He also insisted the victim stayed on his feet and was kept walking which goes against all the books.

Up at the plantation house Bertha held court on the verandah with a round tin of fifty Craven A’s on the table beside her. Kaupa and Mailala were her hausbois who kept the place spotless.

Her constant companion was Danny the cattle dog. No one, black or white, was allowed within two feet of her without dire consequences. The Chimbus were especially wary of Danny and linked his name with the legendary Danny Leahy of  Mount Hagen.        

To supplement their income, Bertha sewed hems on red calico “ramis”(sarongs) which she sold for ten shillings. She also traded bales of southern newspapers at sixpence a double sheet for use as cigarette papers.

“I warn you Ray, I’ll really dong you if you don’t come out; we’ve got to get back before they burn the joint down.”

“I warn you Ray, I’ll really dong you if you don’t come out; we’ve got to get back before they burn the joint down.”Running the plantation was a seven day a week job. The only time off was Anzac Day and Christmas. Ray and Bertha canoed down to Kerema where Frank Ryan or John Murphy put them up. Invariably, Ray would get into a floating poker game at Peter Maloney’s or one of the teacher’s houses. Bertha would get on the war path, breathing fire.

Her real worry was Fufu the cuscus. Fufu was a beautiful tree kangaroo that looked a bit like a ring tail possum with big black shiny eyes. Fufu was their child. She slept in their room and had her own high chair with saucers of pawpaw and bananas. Bertha’s constant fear was that Fufu might end up in a Chimbu pot. Consequently, Kaupa’s job was to look after the pampered animal. The constant refrain was “Where’s Fufu?”

Fufu almost cured  Kevin McCoy. In 1961 Kevin came out on the “Kobe” to service the plantation vehicles and diesel generator.

While the vessel delivered supplies and loaded rubber, Kevin spent several days on the job. His favourite refreshment was Bundaberg rum iceblocks. On his first night he ironed himself out and was settling down when a horrible vision appeared. A shadowy figure emerged from the wardrobe, walked over to the verandah door and quietly shut the door behind him. Kevin confidentially questioned Ray about his ghostly encounter but Ray could not enlighten him. Kev stuck to S.P. lager for the next two days.

Soon after disaster struck. Fufu disappeared. Bertha issued dire threats through Ray but only got “sorry too much” from the Chimbus. Kaupa the house boy and personal keeper was put under a lot of abuse and pressure to almost mental breakdown. He wandered from room to room constantly repeating “Mi pindim, mi pindim, mi no pindim.”  

Three months later Fufu turned up with two babies; she would not come back inside but visited the verandah every night with her brood. Bertha was heartbroken but reconciled. Fifty years have gone and so have Ray and Bertha. The plantation is overgrown and the Gardiner generator is silent. The Papuan caretaker lives in the main house and makes sure the place isn’t demolished for spares. He does report that a family of cuscus scramble around the iron roof at night and feed on the pawpaw that encroach over the verandah railings. The old plantation days are over and Fufu’s descendants are reclaiming their inheritance.

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