Plantation Life in the 1960s – Ian Smith

Plantation Life in the 1960s – Ian Smith

WR Carpenter plantation

Ian Smith at Patlangat

Isolated and remote locations like the New Guinea Islands seemed to attract colourful and interesting people in the 1960s. Some of these characters were involved in the management of copra and cocoa plantations.

Many of these properties were very isolated and required strong mental toughness on the manager’s part to be able to handle many situations especially where indentured labour was concerned. In their villages in the New Guinea Highlands these workers had signed a contract to work for two years. Then they experienced an aeroplane flight, sailing on a small ship and going to an isolated plantation. So much change was hard for them to comprehend.

Many feared monsters occupying large clumps of bamboo. Personal sickness, to their mind, was caused by some nasty person from their home village and malaria prevention tablets were taken with suspicion. No doubt the company I worked for (WR Carpenter) had some understanding of this behaviour as the labour was paid every lunar month—13 times over a 12-month period. I remember an eclipse of the sun that happened about midday and, no matter how hard I tried to explain this phenomenon, general panic started and everyone went to their houses and shut themselves inside.

The native workers were good-natured and hard-working and it was always fun to have a joke, especially if it was on me and, like most employees, they were better led than driven. Generally, work on copra and cocoa plantations was routine, but if an incident occurred ‘alarm bells’ would be ringing. Such incidents included things like a major mechanical tractor breakdown, cyclonic weather, an accident or injury or a fight between groups. Being alone with no immediate help one had to be aware of all circumstances.

Patlangat workforce line for pay and anti-malarials

A particular incident I remember among many others was when a native employee from the plantation next to Patlangat (the property I was managing) arrived at about 4:00 am panting and out of breath to wake me up from a deep sleep to tell me that his boss, the manager, was injured and needed help quickly. This was easier said than done as the next plantation was about 20 km away. Access to it was by a single jungle track that sometimes emerged on to a sandy beach but most alarming was a tidal, mangrove tree lined creek that had to be crossed. However, just before daylight I set off taking two of my most reliable plantation workers and a medical kit with me. We started off at a jog trot and a quick walk to get there soon as possible.

Fortunately, the tidal creek was receding so I guess it would have been only about half a metre deep, but I could not help thinking of crocodiles and water snakes as we splashed across as quickly as we could. We eventually arrived at the neighbour’s plantation at 10 or 11 am.

This copra plantation would be one of the worst for a junior manager to be sent to by the company that we both worked for. It fronted the ocean and extended to the foothills about four km away. However, in the centre of the plantation was a very steep hill that I imagined was the top of an extinct volcano. The manager’s house was situated in the top of this pinnacle and was painted battleship grey inside and out. The view from all the windows consisted only of the tops of coconut palms. It was a depressing place for a single person.

Access to this manager’s home was by way of a steep, winding, dirt track, and one of the company’s instructions to the manager was never to drive the tractor up or down this steep incline. However, this is what Harry (I will call him that for this story) had done. Of course, he lost control of the tractor and it had rolled over. I really did not know what to expect when I arrived there.

Harry was rolled up in bed; he had been boozing but was not drunk and he assured me he was okay. He had a few minor cuts and bruising but some part of the tractor had torn his scrotum open and one testicle had protruded. Maybe some of our medico readers would remember the freezing solution called ethyl chloride? It was in a pressure-packed can like insect spray. Well, Harry had somehow used this solution to numb the area then to push ‘things’ back into place. Using a mirror between his legs and he put two stitches in. There was not much I could do except give him a morphine injection to reduce his pain, after which he told me he could cope until I got help for him.

Finding his plantation foreman, I told him to run things as normally as possible then started the return jog-trot home. Fortunately, the tidal creek was not too deep, and I arrived home in the late afternoon, mentally tired and physically exhausted, but immediately sent a radio message to Rabaul for assistance.

A 13-m work boat went to collect Harry and a temporary relieving manager appointed. Of course, the company sacked Harry, and I thought that would be the last I would see or hear of him.

It was about three months later that I spotted an old yacht about one kilometre out to sea and sailing past Patlangat. This was a very unusual occurrence, so I looked through my binoculars and recognised Harry standing in the yacht’s rigging, waving madly at me as I stood on my house veranda. Was he off on another adventure?

One wonders whatever happened to this fellow. It would be anyone’s guess.


Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

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