A Character in PNG by Graham Hardy
Many characters from Australia and other countries were attracted to PNG before and after World War II. In October 1952 I arrived in Port Moresby together with five other cadet patrol officers, following our induction course in Sydney.
After our presentation to the department headquarters, and going through the formalities, we were let loose to look around Port Moresby in the care of a cadet patrol officer named Paul Kelly-Healy who had arrived about a year earlier. Paul decided that a visit to the Moresby Hotel was high on the list, and so we met our first character on our first day!
As we approached the pub Paul introduced us to a much older gentleman wearing a long grey beard, khaki shirt and long khaki trousers, puffing on a baubau or native smoking pipe. His name was Brother George of the Catholic mission based at Yule Island, north-west of Moresby. He was happy to join us at the Snake Pit Bar where he enjoyed his favourite rum. A khaki-clad, bearded and smoking brother, who swore and drank rum was new to me—I had been brought up by Christian Brothers dressed in black with white clerical collars, who kept any swearing or drinking out of sight.
Brother George had been in Papua for many years and had been recruited by the Australian Army during the war to work operating small ships on the Papuan coast. His brother, a priest, Father Tweedy, was to become a bishop in Tasmania and Brother George was granted leave to attend the celebrations in Hobart. The newspaper reporters were so fascinated by Brother George that articles would begin ‘Brother George and his brother the bishop …’ After about a week, the new bishop told George to get back to Papua at once as he was taking the limelight.
At one time, I think after World War II, the Yule Island bishop told Brother George that he was to be transferred to the Goilala District in the mountains north-west of Port Moresby. He had always been on or near the coast, so he set off with a heavy heart. It meant walking all the way. He had only been on the track a day or two when a message reached him that the electric power plant at Yule Island had failed, and he should return to repair it. George was happy to do so. The generator was soon fixed as he had made sure it would break down soon after he left for Goilala. He remained based on the coast for good.
Brother George was a jack-of-all-trades, and early in his time had built and operated a sawmill on the mainland near Yule Island, and also tended to machinery as well as being a skipper on small ships.
As time went on, I heard many yarns about him. An early story I heard concerned an Irish nun who had been in Papua for twenty-five years at the Yule Island Mission. Her brother had been killed in Ireland by the Black and Tans during The Troubles in 1916, and as a result she had little liking for anything English, including the Royal Family.
King George V was on the throne when the sister approached her twenty-fifth anniversary. Brother George conspired with the Resident Magistrate at Yule Island to write to the good sister on an official telegram form, in the name of King George V and Queen Mary, congratulating her for the anniversary and wishing her many years ahead, etc. The good sister was shocked to think that she had held such nasty thoughts about the king and queen, when they had been so kind to think of her in faraway Papua.
I never heard whether Brother George or the RM were game enough to come clean. I met the sister at the Terapo Catholic Mission on the Tauri River in 1954—she was still working and was a very devoted nun.
After my first introduction in Port Moresby I didn’t get to see Brother George again until 1954, when I was posted to the Kukipi Patrol Post in the Gulf District, at the mouth of the Tauri River between Kerema Bay and Yule Island.
Brother George would carry goods out to Terapo Mission, or at times carry freight on his small ship, St Joseph, for the New Guinea Resources Prospecting Company, which was surveying the possibility that any of the rivers flowing into the Papuan Gulf had a volume sufficient to perhaps support a future hydroelectric venture, to send under-sea electricity to North Queensland to bring about an aluminium mine and factory. An employee, Bill Schleusner, would also use Brother George’s services to take him to inspect automatic recorders from time to time.
During a patrol I undertook on the lower Lakekamu River I suffered a tropical ulcer which required a doctor’s attention. Bill happened to be returning to Yule Island from the Tauri River with Brother George so I was able to travel on the St Joseph. Apart from the excitement in getting over the high waves on the Tauri bar, it was an uneventful trip except for the constant rolling from the ship which had a narrow hull and a top-heavy cabin which Brother George had himself designed.
We arrived at Yule Island just on dark and Brother George gave Bill and me instructions to jump ashore as early as possible while a deckhand at the same time jumped off the bow carrying a rope. We did as we were told and the following conversation came about: Brother George ‘Are you ashore?’ Bill ‘Yes’. George ‘Is the boy ashore?’ Bill ‘Yes’. George ‘Has he got the rope?’ Bill ‘No, George’. George ‘Well, shoot the bastard!’ By this time the vessel had drifted into the darkness, so Brother George repeated his approach and tied up without fuss.
I spent a few days on the island, staying with Bill and seeing the doctor. Brother George was returning to Kukipi soon so it was just right for me. I met Bill Tomasetti, the Assistant District Officer, and also visited the mission. The sisters there told me on the quiet that Brother George was a bit of a handful because he would never keep new clothes no matter how many they made for him. He insisted on giving the new clothes to anyone he came across—Brother George was a true humble brother.
The day we left there were two nuns, two Papuan girls and a young French layman, working for the mission, on board. It was an uneventful trip until we approached the Tauri bar—there was a westerly wind and considerable waves, and Brother George told everyone to sit tight and hold on. I was standing hanging on to something near Brother George who was at the wheel. The others were seated and the young Frenchman had sat himself between the two Papuan girls—with an arm around each to protect them!
The first wave caught us and lifted us up and we slid down the face of the wave just as a 44-gallon drum of kerosene came adrift in the hold and rolled to the low side. Brother George shouted a loud expletive! At this stage we were on a tilt to port and travelling at about a forty-five degrees to forward. We remained in this position until the wave died away and we slowly reached the landing—I was only too pleased to put my feet on solid earth. I kept my promise to myself that I would never put foot on the St Joseph again.
I think it was the last time I saw Brother George, but I recall hearing he died and was buried in Papua after something like fifty years of service in the mission.