Meeting the Mokolkols: Jim Toner

(Published Una Voce, September 2002, page 33)

Jim Toner: Chief Clerk, District Office, Mendi 1957-59; District Office, Rabaul 1960-64; Field Manager, New Guinea Research Unit (ANU), Port Moresby 1965-73

Obligated to report annually to the United Nations on its Trusteeship of the Territory of New Guinea, Australia in 1951 mentioned inter alia that “For more than a quarter of a century, the Mokolkols have been known to the Administration as a small band of primitive nomads living in the country at the foot of the Gazelle Peninsula. They have enjoyed a notoriety disproportionate to their slight numerical importance through their long-standing habit of raiding outlying hamlets, wantonly butchering men, women and children, and disappearing without trace”.

Heaven knows what tut-tutting this caused in the big building on Manhattan Island but in fact remedial action had already been taken. David Fienburg of the Department of District Services & Native Affairs led two patrols to the Mokolkol homeland and at the Waigani Seminar of 1968 he presented a paper detailing his experiences. By that time he had, in what Jim Sinclair described (in his book Kiap) as a most uncharacteristic action, changed his name to Fenbury. Whatever the nomenclature his estimable command of the written word would normally deter me from tampering with his text. However the Mokolkol story is overlong for Una Voce and I therefore attempt a summary.

In 1938, raids by this small group of axe-lovers took the lives of 20 persons resulting in the establishment of a police post at Pomio. In 1940-41, 26 people, mostly women and children, were butchered by the Mokolkols. The war intervened and it was not until July 1950 that notification was received by the Administration that the predatory group still existed. This was contained in a signal from Pomio stating that the Mokolkols had raided an outlying hamlet killing nine inhabitants.

Subsequently Fenbury took a respite from organising Local Government for the relatively sophisticated Tolai and in November mounted a patrol consisting of 10 constabulary, Cadet Patrol Officer Normoyle, and Bill Heather of Forestry Department. The trawler trip to a spot on Open Bay was no problem. After that there was a 500 square miles tract of mountainous virgin bush shunned by natives and expatriates alike. Carriers were engaged, also an aged luluai from the Nakanai who had served on Mokolkol expeditions prewar, which brought the patrol’s strength to 54.

Then follows what I suppose could by called a layman’s guide to PNG “patrolmanship”. Much detail as to preparations, equipment and arduous movement towards the notional camp of the subject group is provided. Fenbury reveals that the cadet had brought an Owen sub-machine gun with him against the remote contingency that stranded Japanese soldiers might be encountered in the rain forest.

On the sixth day the tiny village was found and two men, one woman and four children were captured. After examining the 10 huts on site, Fenbury estimated a total population of less than 30. However he counted 42 axes. Many were worn out but others were highly polished, razor sharp and mounted on black limbom-palm handles some four to five feet in length. These were the unique tools with which the Mokolkol had hacked out their legend.

Of the men, a huge bearded fellow when winkled out of his hut made signs for the patrol to kill him there and then. Spared, and then quartered at Nonga outside Rabaul for six months, his eyes never lost their baleful stare. Both he and the older man, Malil, were initially as suspicious as newly caged animals and inclined to mope, but the latter adapted and Fenbury says that he had a sense of humour and some histrionic ability. He says, “On the Mokolkol’s first visit to the crowded Rabaul market, Malil had quickly detected the element of awe in the intense interest shown by the Tolais.” (Recalling for me the audible silence of the crowd surrounding—but standing well back from—a handful of Kukukukus brought to a Hagen Show.)

Fenbury goes on: “Surrounded by a respectful throng and excited by the noise and sight of the fabulous wealth in food displayed, Malil had suddenly embarked on an impromptu little song and dance act whose culminating point was a liberal sampling of whatever took his fancy. The owners declined to press for payment and he finally staggered off with a huge load of fruit and vegetables.”

The woman, the brightest of the adults, learned some Pidgin but suffered tragedy when her youngest boy was admitted to hospital for dysentery. Fenbury says, “His condition was not considered serious but he suddenly took a turn for the worse and died. It was then discovered that his mother, stubbornly fearful that he would starve to death on a liquid diet, had filled him with chunks of half-cooked taro which she had smuggled into the ward. She wept bitterly for two days and then with the stoicism of her kind appeared to forget the child completely.”

In May 1951, Fenbury and Normoyle repatriated the Mokolkols to Open Bay and while holding the woman and three remaining children at the beach released the two men (issued with axes without which they would have felt much as you or I walking naked down Pitt Street). Their instructions were to bring the rest of the group “in from the cold”. A week later they returned with six other men to engage in what was probably the first amicable intercourse the Mokolkols had ever conducted with stranger.

Fenbury again: “The ice was broken when I presented the woman’s husband, Mulau, an impressively rugged fellow, with a new three-quarter axe with a hickory handle. His reunion with his wife and family had amounted to one or two casual grunts but the axe proved too much for Mokolkol reserve. The wild men patted it lovingly, laughing gaily and chattering at frantic speed in their high-pitched unpleasantly nasal dialect. Mulau tested the blade by taking some tremendous swings at a tree. After a few others had done likewise they sat down and we conversed painfully of many things. But the axe was infinitely more attractive than any official discourse. At intervals, as though succumbing to sheer rapture, one of the Mokolkol would leap up, seize the tool, and try a few more strokes.”

The outcome was that the Mokolkols said, “We won’t raid anymore … now we know where the axes come from.” And seemingly they did not. By 1968 the group had moved to live alongside Bainings people at Matanakunai, had gained some wealth through sale of timber rights, and occasionally visited Rabaul in outboard-powered canoes! Their 1950 practice of killing women in raids instead of stealing them—though short of breeding females themselves—did not bode well for the future. Intermingling with Bainings would obviously alter their culture but it would still be interesting to learn their current status a half-century after David Fenbury’s expedition tracked them down.


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