Book reviews: March 2007
My Dearest Brown Eyes: letters between Sir Donald Cleland and Dame Rachel Cleland during World War II, edited by Nancy Lutton Jack Read, Coastwatcher: The Bougainville Reports – PNG Printing Co. Ltd
The Planter by Owen Genty
Kundus, Cannibals and Cargo Cults: Papua New Guinea in the 1950s by Gloria Chalmers
My Dearest Brown Eyes: letters between Sir Donald Cleland and Dame Rachel Cleland during World War II.
Introduced and edited by Nancy Lutton, Canberra, Pandanus Books, 2006. 323 pp., illus., maps, biographical notes, bibliography. $34.95 (+ $5.50 p&p) at all good bookshops or order from Unireps, University of NSW, Sydney. 2052 or www.unireps.com.au.
Nancy Lutton’s editing of selected Cleland letters is a book of two parts. Chapters One to Eight concentrate on the anguish of Don and Rachel (as they are called) at their wartime separation, their longing for peace and normality and uncertainty about their future. The letters evoke the feelings and hardships of thousands of other married couples disrupted by the war, including evacuees from Papua and New Guinea (PNG) shocked by the indifference of the Australian government towards them. As the years dragged on Rachel’s desperation in raising their two sons without Don’s guiding/controlling presence begins to dominate her letters. Don, in military postings overseas and conscious of the need for self-censorship, could only reply in generalities although his rapid promotion through ability and sheer hard work is soon apparent. As is his inability to suffer fools. This became obvious in his later dealings with PNG department heads and senior officers. Rachel shows an excellent grasp of contemporary politics in Australia and England and frequently makes prescient forecasts of the war’s outcome. Their mutual emotional and intellectual dependence provided a solid base for Don as Administrator striving to rebuild shattered PNG in the difficult postwar years. He was forced to depend on Administration officers of wildly varying ability to meet the sometimes unrealistic demands of the Department of External Territories led by largely ineffectual Ministers while tolerating “society” in Port Moresby.
Lutton’s book is more relevant to past/present residents of PNG from Chapter Nine when the emphasis changes from a love story (as intimated by the unfortunate title) to a clear and detailed account of ANGAU and its potential for PNG. In April 1942 the two military administrative units established after the collapse of civil administration were combined to form ANGAU under the command of New Guinea Force Headquarters. Until the war’s end ANGAU handled the functions of government for those parts of PNG not in enemy hands. Cleland’s involvement in this, and his careful assessment of ANGAU’s role, started the desperately slow process of post-war rehabilitation. The amalgamation of the Territory of Papua and the Mandated Territory of New Guinea into the Territory of PNG in 1949 assisted this. Pre-war rivalries between officers of both territories soon faded. There is an interesting parallel with the Australian Military Administration of (former) German New Guinea and the Expropriation Board established by the Australian government to seize German property there. Each operated separately, duplicated staff and initially neither the Administrator (military to May 1921, then civil) nor the Chairman of the Board (located in Melbourne) recognised the authority of the other. It was, as one observer stated, a ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’ situation. Cleland’s subsequent appointments as Assistant Administrator in September 1951, acting Administrator in June 1952 and Administrator in February, 1953, were based on his obvious ability and experience in PNG.
Lutton need not have referred (p.141) to Dr Lachlan Strahan’s tasteless inclusion in his Day of Reckoning (pp.323-4) of an alleged happening in Cairo between Cleland and J.S. Grimshaw (postwar PNG Police Commissioner). Their service records show that Captains Cleland and Grimshaw were never in Cairo at the same time. Dr Strahan’s otherwise excellently researched (and very readable) book has been marred by this tall-poppy-syndrome gossip. Lutton’s research skills and accuracy leave me only two concerns. One is with the aptness of the honorifics used in the book’s title. The Clelands received these awards well after World War II but perhaps Sir Donald’s rapid changes of military rank made it difficult to decide which one to settle on. I also found the very personal beginnings and endings of letters irritating and repetitive. A few would have set the scene for readers; the rest needed ruthless excision.
My Dearest Brown Eyes is one of the last books published by the now defunct Pandanus Books which may explain why available photographs were not included, and why it did not receive the usual publicity launch. It gives a glimpse of the lives and mutual affection of two essentially private persons. During their time as Australia’s representatives in PNG Sir Donald and Lady (later Dame Rachel) Cleland quietly guided the emerging elite towards the ultimate responsibility of national independence. Their capacity for this is evident in these remarkable letters.
Dr Peter Cahill
Please note: A photographic supplement is available for My Dearest Brown Eyes, put together by member Bob Cleland. In eight A5 pages, family and official sources illustrate both the family at home and Don in the Middle East and New Guinea. Send your name and postal address and five 50 cent stamps to Bob Cleland, 83 Bielby Road, Kenmore Hills, Qld, 4069.
Jack Read, Coastwatcher: The Bougainville Reports
ISBN 9980-9974-1-9. Softcover. 212 pp. Published by PNG Printing Co. Ltd, $A25, posted to Australia, elsewhere on request, from H.R. Holdings, PO Box 633, Port Moresby, 121 NCD, Papua New Guinea, PH: (675) 321-7610 or fax 321 4863.
They’ve taken more than 60 years to become accessible, but Jack Read’s wartime Bougainville Reports, classified Secret, can now be read by the rest of us. And what an illuminating journey he takes us on! Every PNG old-hand knew (or knows of) Jack, who spent 46 years in his beloved islands as kiap, soldier, sailor and finally PNG’s Senior Native Lands Commissioner, retiring only in December 1976, a year after independence. Born in Tasmania, he died aged 87 in Melbourne in 1992, and his daughter, Judith Fairhurst, of Ballarat, is a PNGAA member. Judith wrote the introduction to this volume.
Read’s most outstanding period of achievement, for which he was never officially honoured by Australia (although America did), began in November 1941 after he was posted to Bougainville as Assistant District Officer, Buka Passage. Twelve years a kiap and with solid bush experience, it was his first posting to Bougainville, and he was unfamiliar with the big, rugged island. But after Japan attacked New Guinea that January and his superior, the District Officer at Kieta, and his whole HQ staff abandoned their posts and sailed for Port Moresby, he got to know Bougainville very well indeed as he found himself organising and directing coastwatcher teams behind the lines for the next 17 months. He put together this record of those months for Naval Intelligence in Melbourne, to pass on the “practical experience of the technique of coastwatching, as we found it in Bougainville, which may afford some guidance for operations elsewhere.” The Director of Naval Intelligence, Commander R.B.M Long, acknowledged its receipt with a letter to Read in Brisbane: “Your field exploits had my deepest admiration – they were outstanding and superb examples of the Coast Watching – may I say, Art? When I asked you to write a report of your experiences as a C.W., I dared not hope for a repetition of the high qualities of your field work, but after reading your MS, however, I fear I am unable to decide at which you are most successful. It is excellent!”
There is no waffle as Read presents his balanced and comprehensive, chronological account of the Japanese occupation of Bougainville to mid 1943, including major signal traffic between the coastwatching parties and mainland headquarters. These transmissions became more vital following the long-awaited Allied move against the Japanese in August 1942 – the launching of the crucial American offensive on Guadalcanal. Japanese bombers and ships had to pass Bougainville on their way south from their Rabaul base, and Read’s men in northern Bougainville and a party in the Buin area under Paul Mason, flashed warnings of impending Japanese raids in plenty of time for Guadalcanal to refuel its planes and have them waiting in the clouds. Bougainville’s coastwatchers mightily helped reverse the odds against Japanese victory in the Pacific.
Yet of special fascination in these reports is the on-running account of what life was like for the people of occupied Bougainville, local and expatriate, and the problems this created for Read. Many expatriate planter families and missionaries had refused to leave the island at the outbreak of war (the Christian missionaries holding a sincere but misjudged belief that they could continue to oversee native welfare unhindered) and their presence became an increasing burden on Read. The residents’ demands included food and other supplies to be dropped by air and, finally, demand for evacuation. Thanks to Read and intrepid US Navy submariners, all were eventually taken off the island, although the performance of some of the expats, as named and recorded here, hardly enhance their family reputations. Meanwhile, some Australian residents, and particularly the more numerous American missionaries, died at the hands of the Japanese, and many more taken prisoner, never to be heard of again.
In his unique records, Read lists the names and addresses of all European (ie, expatriate) residents of Bougainville as at 8 December 1941, and what happened to them, including their evacuation; he lists the names of missionaries who died, were taken prisoner or disappeared; names all AIF personnel who served on Bougainville on coastwatching activities; the names and home districts of the Bougainville native police detachment, and natives other than police who served under coastwatcher personnel; and the names and details of coastwatchers who lost their lives, or were injured, before coastwatching activity was suspended in mid 1943 following increasing Japanese pressure on the island’s people.
The tighter Japanese control meant greater danger, sometimes torture and death, for islanders who supported the coastwatchers, for they could not now depend on the village over the next ridge, or some of their own people, not to denounce them to the Japanese. Read names the great many men and women who risked their lives to aid the coastwatching parties, and what they did, as well as naming others who opposed them. Because of this, and because his 1943 report describes with such immediacy, and with such empathy, a native population under great stress in a colonial war that was not of their making, Read’s account should become an invaluable history for Papua New Guineans, even more than for the rest of us.
The Planter By Owen Genty
ISBN: 0-473-10229-3, Published by Geebar Enterprises NZ 2006, 246pp, incl colour and b&w photos, NZ$35 available from P.O. Box 24220, Manners Street Post Office, Wellington, 6142, New Zealand
Owen Genty was born in Bowral, NSW, and grew up with a love of the land and horses. He is a skilled equestrian who has competed semi-professionally in Polo and Rodeo. In the early fifties he signed on with CPL for three years as a plantation overseer at Taboona plantation on the Gazelle Peninsula. Three years turned into fifteen years and The Planter is an anecdotal memoir which covers Genty’s time in PNG on different plantations, including stints at Pondo and Popondetta. Genty recounts his first impressions of Rabaul from the time the plane lands and his introduction to the mores of the colonial community around Kokopo where social and sporting life revolved around ‘the club’. In the early chapters dealing with PNG history – and at times throughout the book – the lines between fact and hearsay are often blurred and statements are unsubstantiated by accurate source referencing. Of most interest to the reader is that Genty records the variety of experiences and situations presented by plantation life – including medical emergencies – and highlights the camaraderie between young bachelors living in isolation. He is not afraid to discuss the racial attitudes and implications that made it difficult to socialize with women outside the European community.
When Genty married, he and Merle decided to raise their family in New Guinea; family life is pre-eminent in the book and is a reminder that the political and economic climate that prevailed in PNG at the time attracted adventurous young men to put down roots and establish a career in ‘the territory’. These same men used their initiative to develop the country in other ways. For example, Genty was involved in the sailing club in Rabaul and formed the Polocrossse club when he and Merle moved to Moresby. In l974 with great sadness Genty and his family left PNG to settle in New Zealand. He had witnessed many changes in his fifteen years and with the onset of Independence the days of plantation life as he had known them in the fifties and early sixties were coming to an end. Those who have lived a plantation life in PNG will be sure to relate to many of Genty’s experiences.
Kundus, Cannibals and Cargo Cults by Gloria Chalmers , Papua New Guinea in the 1950s
ISBN 978 174018 4144, Soft cover, Printed by Books & Writers Network Pty Ltd 2006, 152 pages, photos and illus, cost $24.95 pp available from Gallery 89 Partners, PO Box 302, Jerrabomberra. NSW 2619, Ph: 02-62559432,
Gloria started work in Konedobu, Papua, for the Department of Public Health in late 1951. Gloria describes her work and association with early staff of the Health Department and also involves us in the many recreational activities of life in Port Moresby. A young Dr Zigas was on the threshold of some wonderful exploration in medical research concerning the newly discovered disease ‘Laughing Death’ or Kuru. Gloria and Vin Zigas married at TAPINI in April 1953 where Gloria had to quickly adapt to life on an isolated outstation. Gloria became involved in educating the local people, introducing them to the necessary hygiene rules for housekeeping and the whiteman’s cultural world. Visits by international scientists became more frequent as news of kuru spread. Gloria touches on some amusing interludes during her years in the Eastern Highlands, but we also see loneliness and tragedy including the gradual breakdown of her married life. Gloria eventually returned to an independent PNG in the 1990s and was saddened by the breakdown of tribal and village life as she knew it and the prevalence of diseases which had been previously almost controlled, a lifestyle that many of the people do not deserve.
This book, essentially a personal account, contains some hand-drawn illustrations and is a wonderful read for those people who were involved in those early days of nation building and the historical development of medical services in TPNG as it was then known. Thank you Gloria.
Albert Speer MBE