South Australian Museum Expedition to New Guinea Mainly New Ireland, 1918 by Jim Ridges

South Australian Museum Expedition to New Guinea Mainly New Ireland, 1918 by Jim Ridges

The Director of the South Australian Museum (SAM) Edgar Ravenswood Waite, in 1918 led an expedition, grandly named the North-West Pacific Expedition, departing Sydney 31st May on SS Marsina, returning Sydney 1st September on SS Morinda, and went to the Australian military occupied German New Guinea.

He visited Port Moresby and Rabaul but most of that time, 20th June to 13th August, was spent in the north of New Ireland, compiling an extensive detailed diary/journal of his travels, ethnographical and natural history collecting, photographing and commenting on the people, customs and flora and fauna he encountered. He was accompanied by Mr Augustus Charles Davis, supposedly a one-time administrator of natives in New Ireland.

Many of those collected items are on display in the SAM’s excellent Oceania collection in Adelaide but to anyone interested in New Ireland and its development, the detailed journal and the nearly 200 plate photographs are of equal or even greater interest, showing as they do some of the conditions at the time.

Regrettably, to the best of my knowledge and in the absence of many other similar photos and comments etc., they are not readily available for the general public to see, and more particularly for interested New Irelanders, to be able to study how their relatives lived 100 years ago. It seems also, that from a tentative request a few years ago to use one of the photos taken by Waite of the then new Kavieng overseas wharf to mark its centenary, that SAM is claiming copyright which would effectively prevent easy access, and is less cooperative than some other museums. I don’t suppose those photographed at the time gave their permission for their photos, use or restricted distribution!

The photos are of some items that were collected, the people using them, some of the collectors, the planters, their wives, military officials, police, carriers and the local people. Some of the photos may be the earliest, like the Kavieng main wharf in 1918 only completed one year earlier. Others are the only ones known to me of names that are still remembered; ‘Charley’ Petterson from Sweden and wife Sindu of Simberi; ‘Charley’ Ostrom, a Russian Finn of Lakurafanga, with his daughter Hilda from his first wife Vatio, and second wife the half Samoan Lucy Maria; and Hans Oscar Herterich, a German who somehow returned to his local family after expropriation and deportation in 1921/2, only to be executed in 1942 by the Japanese, a fate that met Charley Ostrom with his son also, but in 1944.

The strength of the collection in my view, is the very ordinariness of many of the subjects. A hand cart with carriers; a motorcycle and sidecar; a water buffalo; Wanalau, the policeman at attention, with rifle, laplap, blancoed belt, bandoliers and ‘sailor’ cap; boys with kambang hair; the scarred chests and thighs of young women; women road cleaners; the naked emaciated old man. Normal day to day scenes yet no longer normal. Others are cultural. Masks; malagan house; headdresses; a ‘hanging’ tree on which bodies were prepared; a clam shell armlet and stone on which they were shaped; the lonuat instrument player.

Having attended a cremation, visited a bats cave, shot birds and dis-interred fairly recently buried graves to collect the skulls, Waite also sailed over to the Tabar islands. Throughout the trip he was developing his photographic plates in less than perfect conditions and also lost several films.

It would be nice to think that in this centenary year of the expedition that he led, and which was so successful, that some publication of the journal and photographs might be made so that more awareness of Australia’s nearest neighbour would result, its military occupation, and of New Ireland, still in the 250th anniversary year of its naming in 1767, but which has passed without any significant remembrance of the historical event, a missed opportunity at self-promotion if ever there was one.

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