Island trader, Gordon Harris

This story was found amongst papers written by Gordon Harris, formerly of Biwa Plantation on Djaul Island in the New Ireland Province. They were provided to the PNGAA by MaryLou Uechtritz.

The islands off New Guinea are a veritable storehouse of stories of strange encounters, and of individual and collective adventure. They form indeed a most fascinating study of the stranger aspects of exploration in these small isolated areas of the world, still largely untouched by civilization and all that this brings with it.

Typical of such stories is that of Charlie Petersen, and of the unusual discovery by Les Bell.

For many years I was a planter and trader living on a small island off the west coast of New Ireland, which is a large island in the Bismarck Archipelago near the mainland of New Guinea.

The European community was a small one and consisted of planters, traders, schooner masters, missionaries, government officials and a few others engaged in various types of commercial enterprise. The beautiful little township of Kavieng on the extreme northern tip of New Ireland was the headquarters of the district; and sooner or later one met there all the European community scattered over the large group of surrounding islands.

Amongst them one often came across many interesting and extremely individual characters, as this type of life was only suited to those personalities who minded neither the isolation and primitive living conditions, nor the unpredictable risks of their pioneering existence.

Just such a character was Charlie Petersen, a powerful Swede in his late sixties, who I met from time to time at the Club during periodic visits to Kavieng. Old Charlie was the owner of a very prosperous coconut plantation on a large outlying island.

He was a pretty rough diamond and had led a hard and dangerous life before his present prosperity. His whole life was wrapped up in the islands to which he had first come as a young man and he had become completely detribalised, showing no desire ever to return to Europe or even visit Sydney, the Mecca of European exiles in that tropical climate.

As a young man he had been wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef. The whole crew had managed to get off safely in two boats and had made for the mainland of Australia. In the ensuing weather and storms one boat disappeared with all hands and was never heard of again. The second boat containing Charlie was blown well off course and made the mainland some weeks later only with great difficulty. Charlie was the only survivor; the others having died, as he explained, of exposure and starvation.

An enquiry was held into the circumstances of the loss and the peculiar fact emerged that the sole survivor, far from being in an emaciated and half-starved condition when he was picked up, was apparently well nourished and in comparatively good health. This gave rise to considerable suspicion and surmise and, at the enquiry, it was postulated that he had eaten his companions in order to survive. This he frankly admitted but strongly denied that he had been in any way connected with their deaths. As there was no proof to the contrary, although there was considerable speculation at the time as to the truth of his account, the matter was allowed to rest.

After this incident, Charlie appeared to have had enough of Australia, and shipped aboard a Scandinavian barque bound for the islands. On arrival he deserted the ship to lead a wild beachcombing and adventurous sort of life. At last, it seemed, he had found the type of life he was looking for and which appealed to him. He became, in turn, beachcomber, recruiter, trader and schooner master – finally settling down on a lonely island where he exercised considerable influence amongst the natives, even to the extent of taking the Chief’s daughter to live with him.

The Bismarck Archipelago was in those days a very wild place: there was little law and order until the Germans gradually imposed discipline on the more unruly elements. Charlie, having obtained a large piece of land from the old chief, with the help of the natives had built up a very fine coconut plantation and, by the time I met him, was looked on as a reformed character.

One could not help but feel, though, that the transformation was skin deep, and the old chap was regularly assisted down to his schooner after a visit to Kavieng and put on board for the return trip much the worse for wear. He was however as tough as they make them and these benders seemed to do him little harm.

An old friend of mine, also a Swede, by name Captain Carlson, who had been a life-long friend of Charlie’s, once told me how he and Charlie and another fellow had made a trip to the south coast of Djaul Island to recruit labour. The south coast of the island, now almost devoid of inhabitants, was in those days thickly populated. There had just been a fierce tribal fight and many kanakas had swum out to the schooner for protection, so there was no lack of recruits. The schooner set sail for a small harbour on the coast of New Ireland and anchored for the night.

Captain Carlson told me that the local luluai, or chief, had invited them to partake of a meal which appeared to be some sort of meat stew and tasted quite good, although they noticed the bones seemed to be rather peculiarly formed. But all three ate with enjoyment. It was only after they had finished that the luluai told them with wicked relish that they had been eating long pig, or man. Charlie thereupon drew his revolver and shot the luluai dead. The other two put their fingers down their throats and were violently sick. Not so Charlie, however, who merely commented that the stew was extremely good and that he had only shot the luluai for having mocked him.

Charlie figured in many such tales of the wild life of those days. Most of the characters were by that time dead or old men – travesties of their former swashbuckling selves – and there were few opportunities of getting such stories first-hand.

Not only did one meet odd, vivid people such as Charlie, who would have found it difficult to adjust to a more ordered and well-established social routine, but incidents occasionally cropped up which brought to the surface in a striking manner the impact of a civilized world on these more primitive parts.

Such an incident did Les Bell encounter on one of his trips to a little-known island. Almost due north of the large island of New Hanover, in the Bismarck Archipelago, lies an isolated group called the St Matthias Islands, the largest of which is known as Mousseau, or Stormy Island as some charts have it. This island is very near the Equator and on the direct route of the old Spanish galleons which used to sail between Spanish possessions on South America and the Philippines, carrying stores and troops.

Owing to its isolated position it was rarely visited by traders or shell fishers and there were no plantation or European settlers. Trochus has always been an important export from the islands of New Guinea. Les Bell, a friend of mine, once decided to make a trip to Mousseau in his schooner in the expectation of obtaining pearl shell from its large surrounding reef. He hoped to find, owing to its isolated position, that the reef was as yet unfished.

On arrival, having found a suitable and safe anchorage, he set about his task with success, shell being plentiful. After two weeks profitable shelling, he had about cleaned out the reef surrounding Mousseau and was contemplating returning to Rabaul, the capital of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea situated on the large island of New Britain some three hundred miles away. He knew he would have no difficulty disposing of his harvest.

Before leaving, however, he decided to spend a few days looking over the island with a view to establishing a permanent trade station. Although the island had been under Government control for some years, not much was known about it and it had been left alone except for very rare inspections from some visiting official. The result was that the natives were extremely primitive and had a reputation for treachery and violence.

Despite the long distance to the nearest European settlement, it might have proved an ideal site for a trading station: there was plenty of copra and shell available and no competition. In any event it was worth investigating. Bell landed and spent several days contacting the local natives, particularly the Chief, who proved to be quite friendly. While exploring the islands, Bell at the same time endeavoured to extract from the locals some information as to its previous history and native lore.

He asked the Chief who were the first white men with whom they had been in contact. The Chief told him, through one of the crew who seemed to have some knowledge of the local dialect and acted as interpreter that, many years ago in the time of their ancestors, a great ship like a house, very high at both ends, had arrived and anchored off the beach in the same place that Bell’s schooner now occupied. The crew – white-skinned, bearded men – were in very poor condition with much sickness among them, many being unable to walk. The sick were brought ashore by their countrymen and tents made of sails were erected on the beach. It seemed quite obvious, from their description, that the ship was an old time galleon, stricken with scurvy – the scourge of those days.

For several weeks they remained while the sick crew members recovered. At first the natives were very friendly towards them and all went well; but later on friction arose and the natives attacked them, driving many away from the beach. During the fighting that ensued, several natives and Spaniards were killed or wounded. Next day the ship lowered two boats full of armed men who made for the beach. After fierce fighting they drove the natives back into the swampy ground in the interior.

The Chief explained to Bell that each boat had a big ‘musket’ in the bows. Obviously these were small boats’ cannon. When the Europeans were well into the swamp, recklessly pursuing their fleeing enemy, the natives rallied, surrounded and attacked them fiercely. The Chief explained that it had been very hard to kill the white men as they had ‘iron skins’, but this also made them more vulnerable as the weight of their bodies caused them to sink into the marshy ground. It was obvious from this description that the ‘iron skins’ he referred to were armour.

Eventually the Spaniards were driven back; leaving many killed and wounded, and abandoned the two cannon they had carried with them. The wounded were immediately killed by the natives who, following their usual cannibalistic custom, feasted with rejoicing on the bodies of their foes.

Bell asked what had happened to the cannon which had been captured and the Chief replied that they had been left lying where they had been abandoned on a spot very close to the place where Bell was standing.

Being interested in this tale, Bell asked to be taken to the scene of the fight which proved to be a small swamp behind the beach. As the natives assured him that the cannon had never been removed but had, over the years, sunk into the ground, he borrowed one of their fish spears and endeavoured to locate the cannon’s whereabouts by prodding the marshy earth.

After searching for a short time and without much difficulty, his spear encountered a hard object which when unearthed proved to be a small brass cannon, bearing the raised impress of the Imperial Crown of Spain on its breech. This was a typical example of a boat’s cannon, mounted in the bows of ships boats or pinnaces in those days. Despite a prolonged search he could not locate the second cannon.

After this successful effort, Bell was naturally keen to find the armour and equipment of the dead Spaniards, but was told by the Chief that it was their custom to remove all bones and relics after a cannibalistic feast to the other side of the island. There, they were buried in order that the victors would not be haunted by the tambarans or ghosts of their departed foes and he did not know where the remains had been buried.

Bell took the little brass cannon to Rabaul and presented it to the small local museum where it was identified as a cannon of approximately the sixteenth century.

An interesting footnote to the above tale is that sometime before the 1914 war, when part of New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago was a German Colony, a German officer with police boys landed on Mousseau on a tour of inspection and had been treacherously murdered with all his expedition. A punitive expedition had later punished the attackers and Mousseau was then left for many years without any further visits until, in 1914, the Australians captured these former German possessions.

In the early 1920s a British District Officer made a patrol to Mousseau and among the various interesting things discovered was the crested silver table ware and a pair of silver candlesticks belonging to the murdered German officer. Apparently in those days it was customary for the German officials to travel in some state and comfort on their leisurely patrols.

I often regret not having obtained more information about those early pioneering days of New Guinea from the survivors I knew such as Charlie and Captain Carlson, who have now gone, and from my contemporaries like Les Bell. Captain Carlson, one of the last of this band, either died or was murdered in New Hanover during the Japanese occupation of these islands in the last war.

This colourful chapter of island history is something which has now vanished forever in the archives of time. Unfortunately very little of it has been recorded and posterity will be the poorer for its loss, in the study of the richness and variety of human experience.


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