On being a kiap: Jim Sinclair

Notes for panel discussion, National Archives, Canberra, 21 November 2010.

It must be emphasized that my experiences were shared by many kiaps, and were not in any way unique.

I have decided to talk about my first term as a kiap, because the first term was vitally important, and often shaped the officer’s future direction. A term consisted of 21 months on duty in PNG, followed by three months recreation leave, usually spent in Australia.

The culture shock when first exposed to PNG in those early post-war years was quite profound. Some young officers couldn’t hack it, and resigned. One or two committed suicide. Of the 30-odd of my own induction course at ASOPA—Australian School of Pacific Administration, Sydney—which included agricultural officers and European Medical Assistants, only a few of us are still around.

I went to PNG as a cadet patrol officer in 1948—a “manki kiap”. Manki was Pidgin slang for boy, rather deflating for an earnest young officer. From memory the salary was 356 pounds a year, with no allowances of any sort. I went up fully equipped with a huge tin steamer trunk purchased from a Sydney second-hand shop, and a large Indian solar topee—which I hastily discarded soon after arriving in Port Moresby, as I could not bear all the ribald comments.

My first station was Lae, Morobe District, then slowly recovering from the devastation of the Pacific war, which had been particularly savage around Lae and the lower Markham. After a couple of months learning the ropes in the various Administration departments, I was posted to  Wau Sub-District. The ADO there was Francis Luckman Burke, a pre-war officer, very cheerful and laid-back, with a devout belief in the healing properties of Rhum Negrita, very tolerant of the green, half-baked youth that I was. Frank died young, and I remember him with deep affection.

My first patrol was a disaster. I forgot all the sound tips that ADO Dave Fienburg had given us at ASOPA on Practical Administration, and went out with virtually no equipment, and only a tin or two of meat: I must have supposed that the Lord would provide. Two veteran police constables were with me, and they gently but firmly shielded me from grievous error. A very sobering experience, but also very valuable. I did not make the same mistakes twice.

Wau was a wonderful little town then, with the best climate in PNG. Many of the old Morobe Goldfield pioneers had returned, and I listened, fascinated, to their tall stories. I recall the late Bill Royal telling me—a humble manki kiap—of how he and Dick Glasson discovered Edie Creek in January 1926. I think it was this exposure to these living legends of the past that first stirred my life-long interest in PNG history.

In 1949 I was transferred to Kaiaipit Patrol Post, in the Markham Valley. It was then a very isolated post. The wartime jeep road from Lae had long since gone back to the bush, and the only way to Kaiapit was to walk, or fly. I flew, in an ancient De Havilland Fox Moth biplane. There had been much bitter fighting in the Markham Valley, and the valley floor, covered with dense, high kunai grass, was absolutely littered with wrecked American and Japanese warplanes. The entire station was constructed of materials taken from the bush.

Max Orken was OIC Kaiapit. He was a mature man in his 30s, and a fully-fledged patrol officer. I was exceedingly fortunate to come under the influence of a man like Max, so early in my career. He had served in the AIF from 1940 to 1946, and was a sophisticated, tolerant man with a great fund of worldly knowledge, and luckily we shared a love of classical music. I had invested in a wind-up portable gramophone and a stack of 78 rpm records, which Max and I enjoyed during our rather spartan evenings at this remote Post.

We received our supplies by aeroplane. Kaiapit was served by small biplanes, relicts of a past era in aviation. They did not have self-starters, so the pilot usually kept the engine turning over whilst the cargo was hurriedly removed. If a longer stop was required and the engine was switched off, the PO had to swing the propeller to get it started again. It was not dangerous once one knew how, but I was never very happy about it, myself.

Kaiapit was a station with a past. A previous OIC and his PO a year or so before had been sent to prison for 3 years and 5 years respectively, for imposing rather original solutions to such matters as adultery—an offence under the Native Administration Regulations—by making the guilty pair re-enact the deed in front of assembled villagers, the male participant being urged on to greater effort by whacks on his bare backside with a cane. Needless to say, all officers had been sternly warned not to make similar errors. The Kaiapit people were of course well aware of what had transpired.

So Kaiapit was not an easy station to administer. The Kaiapit villagers had also seen much of war; they had been exposed to Australian and American military forces, and in the pre-war years the Markham valley had been the route into the newly-discovered Central Highlands, and the people had come into contact with prospectors, government officers and missionaries.

The administrative area also covered the inland mountain region of the Waffa and Leron Rivers, containing pockets of relatively primitive population. It was on the Upper Leron that PO Tom Hough was hit by a bone-tipped arrow during an attack by warriors in December 1936. Hough subsequently died of his wounds at Salamaua.

When I was posted to Kaiapit I was just 22 years old, and obviously with very little experience, yet when Max departed on recreation leave, no officer was available to relieve him, and to my joy—and considerable apprehension—I was appointed Officer-in-Charge, Kaiapit, a position I held until I went on my first leave, in June 1950. I should add that it was unusual, but not unprecedented, for a green young cadet to end up in charge of a patrol post. There was a severe shortage of officers then, and if you were in the right place at the right time you could get lucky, as I did. Merit had little to do with it.

Running a Patrol Post was a very considerable responsibility. The administrative area contained a population of more than 16,000 villagers, ranging from the relatively sophisticated Valley people to primitive mountain dwellers. I had a police detachment of 14 members of New Guinea Police Force, and fortunately for me, it was a relatively experienced detachment. I was also gazetted  a Member of the Court for Native Affairs, and had a heavy magisterial responsibility.

Life was still pretty simple in those days. Like all outstations, Kaiapit was linked to headquarters in Lae by teleradio, and regular “skeds” as we called them were observed each day. Paper work was limited to sparse official correspondence and Government Store records and—most important—patrol reports.

Because we were patrol officers, that was what we did: patrol. A routine patrol in the settled Districts could run from a few days to a month or so, with 2-3 weeks about the average. Exploratory and special patrols could last much longer. In my own case, I made many patrols ranging from 30 to 70 days, from the time of leaving the station to the time of returning. And after each patrol we had to submit a comprehensive typed patrol report.  

Walking in the Markham valley was a hot and uncomfortable business. The kunai grass grew to a height of 5 and 6 feet, and towards midday walking was close to being unbearable.

But those Markham villages were real havens, all shielded by tall coconut palms. At the entrance to each village the luluai would be waiting, with a kulau—green coconut—in his hand, the top sliced open. The sweet milk was intensely refreshing. Then the business of the patrol would follow. An inspection of the village, to see whether the people were keeping out the pigs, and using the pit toilets. If an NMO (Native Medical Orderly) was with the patrol, he examined and treated the sick.

A census would be held, with particular emphasis on the registration of births and deaths. One tried to discover the “hidden” infant death rate: those who had been born and died between censuses. Then a sitting of the Court for Native Affairs would be convened, under the shade of some convenient tree, and the various matters of contention in the village settled. The PO’s verdict was generally accepted without argument. Then, if it was getting late, the patrol would camp for the night in the rough shelters provided by the villagers: police quarters, and a “house-kiap” for the officer.

I made two long patrols into the mountain villages, where it was still necessary in places to keep a wary eye on the people, and at times even maintain a police guard at night. This was a totally different experience to patrolling the Valley. It helped to prepare me for the exploratory patrols I made during the 1950s in Morobe and Southern Highlands Districts.

So: that was the way it went. Like most young patrol officers, I finished my first term a far different young man than when I started it. And I had completed just the first step on what was to be a long road.


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