Handcuffs, PNG version: Maxwell R Hayes

One of the world police forces’ simplest yet effective form of handcuffs was in use in Papua New Guinea for over half a century. This was about a metre of ordinary brass chain such as many of our seniors might have pulled to flush a toilet in earlier days.

The British New Guinea Armed Constabulary (BNGAC) was formed in 1890 and over the next years made many wide ranging contact patrols, sometimes in the field for three or more months. British New Guinea was to be later known as Papua. These superbly loyal native police patrolled through the primitive uncontrolled Papuan hinterland under the leadership of a Resident Magistrate.

Many inland natives had never seen a white man before. In many areas cannibalism of victims was the normal result of inter-tribal warfare. These very primitive natives were literally “headhunters” and when encountering, and sometimes ambushing, such police patrols it was often necessary for the police to fire with deadly effect when under attacks.

From the very first days of the BNGAC patrols, any prisoners taken would have been roped together or tied with native vines and brought back to Port Moresby. This method generally proved unsatisfactory and supplies of a regular pattern of Hiatt handcuff were imported. A c. 1900 photo shows a native policeman wearing a handcuff pouch on his uniform belt. No chain can be seen.

It is not known precisely when the force was equipped with the Hiatt handcuff but I have a handcuff key from the early 1900s. The Hiatt handcuff required a key, the barrel of which was internally threaded to fasten the hinged arm. Hiatt handcuffs, of which there were several patterns, were manufactured in Birmingham, England, from the late 19th century. I have been told that the odd Hiatt handcuff in very remote patrol posts may have still been in use in Papua early post World War 2.

It would not be difficult to imagine that many keys, being so small, would have been lost thus rendering the handcuff impossible to use until further keys could be obtained. It is quite probable that some handcuffed natives (particularly if they had escaped from police captivity), would have remained handcuffed without any means of release, or of being cut loose. This would especially be so in the remote areas of Papua where there were no cutting tools available for iron handcuffs. It became necessary to devise a simple system of restraint which did not depend on a key.

The solution was simple and, when applied properly, foolproof. Thus, the brass chain method of restraint was devised. It is not known precisely when the chain was introduced into general use but photos of c. 1906-07 show native police wearing the chain.

A photo taken by Frank Hurley in July 1921 shows the chain worn suspended and looped from the customary rifle cartridge belt. Photos c. 1935, 1940 and others show the chain worn as part of the black serge sulu (jumper), laplap and cartridge belt uniform. When arrested, the offender was handcuffed behind his back by means of the chain being wound around the wrists several times and the end link of the chain fastened to another link.

The last time I saw the chain used as a restraint was out of Rabaul in 1962 when, with other officers, I attended a very large riot with my native police. We had a box of regular handcuffs but these were quicky used up and the chain again came into use probably for the last time in Papua New Guinea.

In 1906 the BNGAC became known as the Papuan Armed Constabulary and variously referred to as the Armed Native Constabulary throughout the intervening years. King George V recognized the many years of arduous and hazardous patrolling by dedicated police since the very first days of 1890. By Royal Warrant of August 1939 this unique police force was renamed as the Royal Papuan Constabulary (RPC). It thus became one of only three “Royal” police forces in the world. During the Japanese occupation of the New Guinea Islands and much of the mainland between 1942 and 1945, the RPC native police joined with native police of the New Guinea Police Force to form a comparatively small fighting unit as part of the Australian Army. Their bravery resulted in the awards of 28 Loyal Service Medals, 5 British Empire Medals, 1 Distinguished Conduct Medal and 1 George Medal.

With the resumption of the post-war civil government administration in 1946, both former territories of Papua and New Guinea were administratively joined. The quite separate pre-war police forces of Papua and of New Guinea were joined to form the Royal Papua and New Guinea Constabulary. Police continued to wear the pre-war RPC uniform and in 1953 a contingent of the RP&NGC was invited to attend the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth ll in London.

Native police continued to wear the brass chain with the RPC uniform until 30 September 1964. On 1 October 1964, it was replaced by a new in line blue uniform for all ranks and the brass chain ceased to be worn by native police. It was replaced with a regular key operated police pattern handcuff (and keys still continued to be lost.)

Many people seemed to think that the brass chain was just an unnecessary adornment bilas (pidgin) to a police uniform which had been in continual use from 1890 with the brass chain from around 1906-07. Little did they know that this simple brass chain, always worn on the left side and suspended from the cartridge belt, had served a very useful and practical purpose for over half a century. My thanks to Jim Sinclair and Rick Giddings for their notes.


Leave a Reply