Book Reviews: Aitape Story: the Great New Guinea Tsunami of 1998
by Hugh Davies, The Middle Kingdom: A Colonial History of the Highlands of Papua New Guinea by James Sinclair, Sivarai by Chips Mackellar.
• ISBN-13: 9781925043273
• Publisher/Imprint: HALSTEAD PRESS
• Author: Davies, Hugh
• Price: AUD 39.95
• Format: Hardback (255mm X 190mm) 200 pages Weight: 760g
World-wide reports of terrible ‘natural disasters’ are provided so promptly by the global media these days, that the lists of tragedies seem to grow faster than ever and appear unending. We can also fall into the trap of remembering only the most recently reported disasters. We recall the Japanese (Honshu) earthquake related tsunami of 2011, the more than 15,000 people who perished, and the radioactive leakages from the damaged nuclear-energy plant at Fukushima. Or else, closer to home, there was the great Indian Ocean, or ‘Boxing Day’ tsunami of 2004, and the approximately quarter-of-a-million people who died, mainly in Banda Aceh in western Indonesia.
How many of us, however, can recall clearly the details of the tsunami and disaster in the Aitape District, suffered in 1998 by our closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, even though these events were reported widely at the time? Now, Halstead Press in Sydney has provided a valuable service by publishing a well-designed book on the disaster. Aitape Story concentrates on the remarkable relief-and-recovery efforts that involved a huge range of emergency, medical, media, and disaster-management agencies, both Papua New Guinean and international, both government and NGO (Red Cross, World Vision, the Salvation Army and so on) — all far too numerous to list here. These response groups included the Australian Government through its aid program, the Australian Defence Force (ADF), and smaller organisations such as the Monash Orthopaedic Surgical Team, Melbourne. We can read this book with bewilderment and wonder in trying to understand how the day-to-day work of so many well-meaning groups, as well as the requirements of generous donors, the critical management of finances and stores, and the needs of visiting politicians and every other visitor, could possibly have been coordinated and integrated successfully for the benefit of the survivors and their families.
The Aitape tsunami struck the north coast of New Guinea island in West Sepik Province a few minutes after dusk at about 7.05 p.m. on Friday 17 July 1998, after a series of earthquakes and aftershocks that began at 6.49 p.m. below the seafloor only a few kilometres off-shore. The tsunami hit most severely along a 45 km-long stretch of coast between Aitape town in the southeast and the mouth of the Bliri River in the northwest, but particularly along a quite localised, central, 14 km-long sector bordering Sissano Lagoon. People in the villages of Arop and Warapu living in front of the lagoon — and isolated on sand spits at the ocean’s edge — were swept into the lagoon by a 10-15-metre high tsunami wave. Damage was also extensive at the mission, district office, and villages at Sissano, including Nimas. Smaller waves extended across the lagoon as far as Aroporo. The waves’ lagoonal flood eventually drained out towards the sea, including through the opening at Otow.
The exact total of deaths is unknown but likely was more than 1600. Injuries caused by people being tumbled helplessly and violently in the destructive wave which was laden with debris (mainly logs and sand) were extreme. The injuries included fractured bones, deep lacerations, severe bruising and abrasions, impalement on mangrove roots, seawater-ingestion and, later, gas gangrene as wounds became infected. The still-living villagers, and those who were still dying, spent a horrific night abandoned, traumatised, and trying to cope as best they could, until a Sister at the nearby Malol Catholic Mission managed to contact the outside world by HF-radio at 7.30 the next morning. Early helicopter support for evacuation of survivors was provided by the Frieda River exploration camp, followed by strong support from other aviation companies. The relief phase then began in earnest, extending over the following days and weeks. Rescuing and treating the injured and burying the dead in this tropical climate — where injuries become infected and bodies deteriorate quickly — were priorities.
The author of Aitape Story is Professor Hugh Davies, an Australian, and a long-time resident of Port Moresby. His almost entire professional career as both an academic (at the University of Papua New Guinea) and as a government geologist, has been spent in Papua New Guinea. Davies has also developed over his career, a strong commitment to the study of geological hazards, and to related disaster-management issues including a focus on geologically at-risk communities. This compassionate commitment to the people of Papua New Guinea emerges clearly from the pages of Davies’ book.
Eastward view of the spit where formerly villagers of Arop had lived. The tsunami approached from the ocean on the left and washed the villages into Sissano Lagoon on the right. Coconut trees and some small concrete ground structures remain in place.
Aitape Story is published almost 19 years after the tsunami. This apparent delay is the result of an unhurried, systematic, and careful collection and analysis of information about the disaster by Davies who has produced, finally, at his own pace, an engaging and definitive account. It has been written in an accessible style designed for a non-specialist audience. This is the kind of book that could readily be overdramatised, but Davies’ style is objective, clinical, calm, and respectful. Human failures as well as successes are described openly, and Davies is by-and-large non-judgmental. The reported facts speak for themselves, and Davies soon moves on in his humanitarian narrative from any temptation to expand on potential controversies and failures.
All aspects of the disaster and its management are set out in 12 chapters, each well organised and fully illustrated with colour photographs, maps, and even portrait photographs of many of the people involved in the disaster and in the response. Books have been published before on geological disasters, but I don’t know of any that have ‘drilled down’ so deeply to portray so effectively the personal stories of survivors, volunteers, church people, missionaries, trauma counsellors, and the medics who worked heroically in hospitals in nearby Wewak and Aitape (Raihu), and at Vanimo Hospital where an ADF field hospital was also established. Local volunteer rescuers were especially effective in the first days after the tsunami struck.
Davies has reproduced in his book several comprehensive contributions by writers other than himself. Just one example is Sister Mary Martin Joseph FRCS. She is a nun of the Passionist order and a surgeon trained in Britain and was returning home to the Aitape area from overseas when the tsunami struck. She ‘hitched a lift’ from Port Moresby on a Hercules (C130) relief aircraft and arrived at Wewak to begin work on casualties at the hospital there: ‘I went straight to the wards and found chaos …’, she writes. Sister Joseph is clearly a no-nonsense person who, together with other leaders of similar character at the disaster scene, must have had a major hand in creating order out of the chaos. Read the rest of this chapter on ‘Treating the injured’ and, like me, find out what tsunami-disaster medical assistance under extreme conditions is all about from those who dealt with it at Aitape.
Davies was involved in smoothing the way for international tsunami scientists visiting the disaster area in late July and August 1998 in order to assess the cause and impact of the Aitape tsunami. These International Tsunami Survey Teams (ITST), and other inquisitive scientists, brought in marine geophysical equipment including a remotely operated submersible, seismographs, and drilling gear for on-land investigation of coastal sediments in a search for old, sub-surface, tsunami deposits. One scientific hypothesis was that the 1998 tsunami had been caused by a submarine landslide triggered by one of the precursory, local earthquakes, rather than by one of the earthquakes themselves, but such a young landslide could not be identified unequivocally.
The scientific teams later reported their findings in the international scientific literature, yet did not forget the affected, stoic communities back in the Aitape area, many of whom had soon relocated to new settlements inland, well away from the threats at the coast. The ITST scientists, to their credit, returned to the Aitape area in September 1999. They presented their results at well-attended community gatherings, and later at a special conference (proposed by Davies) that was held in Madang and which was attended by a wide range of participants, including local villagers and survivors. This is not to suggest that all of the villagers at these meetings believed the explanations being offered by the scientific ‘experts’. There are, as Davies explains, people in Melanesian society who still believe in sorcery, and ‘… the question people ask is not what caused the disaster but who caused it’ (his emphases). Was the disaster, for example, caused by the wrath of the Christian God? Some had seen Satan in the waves. Others thought the tsunami was caused by a bomb.
Davies finishes with these words: ‘… ultimately the onus to recover was on the individuals, each of whom had suffered some degree of loss, who pulled their families together, rebuilt their houses, carved new canoes, planted new gardens, and made the villages. I admired them greatly. It was a
privilege to be there and see it happen’. Any reader of these words could hardly rebut Davies’ sentiments.
Humanitarianism and strongly recovering communities are still to be found in our world today, as revealed by this insightful book.
Reviewer: R. Wally Johnson
College of Asia and the Pacific
Australian National University Canberra
The Middle Kingdom: A Colonial History of the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
by James Sinclair
Published by Crawford House Publishing Australia, 34 Kingdom Pl, Goolwa SA 5214, 0439 808 364. ISBN 978 1 86333 2 45, 2017, $89.95, hard cover, 214x198mm, 622pp (XXIV–486+116 photo pages), over 500 b&w photographs, 11 maps, Appendix, Bibliography, Index.
It is the biggest single-author book ever published about anywhere in the Pacific; “a huge beast of a book” Jim called it. Its 240,000 words came from boxes of original records Jim collected, from dozens of his interviews with Highlanders and people they met, from research on the Highlands listed in a 25-page bibliography, and from Jim’s lifetime experience as kiap, author and photographer. Inspired by the beauty and diversity of the Highlands, united by a meticulous and wide-ranging narrative, Middle Kingdom is a colossal achievement; rich in 100s of archival photographs, many are full page never before published.
The book has 41 chapters spread over 6 Parts. Part 1, its longest section, fifteen chapters, is a vivid survey of the European discovery and opening of the Highlands from the first Lutheran advances in the 1920s to the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941. Rich in new detail, this is the book’s most powerful section. With other accounts, including Jim’s first book Behind the Ranges (1966), it is the most comprehensive record of first contact anywhere in the world.
The next two sections, on the Pacific War, and the years following when Jim Taylor was the last emperor of the Middle Kingdom, have valuable new information taken from Jim’s interviews and collections, and again outrange anything previously written. Then from the 1950s Jim deals impressively with growing diversity as more and more whites in more and more jobs come into the Highlands. Lists of names become more common, but Jim’s command of his subject doesn’t falter. Simply keeping the chronology clear must have been a slog. No-one will attempt to repeat it.
He writes of kiaps breaking bush, establishing stations, introducing local government. He writes of government initiatives in contact and administration, agriculture, health, education and transport, of prospectors and miners, of missions, of storekeepers and business people, of crops especially coffee. He writes of emerging Highlanders – fight leaders become luluais, war veterans become businessmen, bush children become university graduates, enterprising clansmen become politicians with a voice in the future of the Highlands. It is a story of progress more than of what Highlanders lost, but it does not avoid the increasing violence of the immediate pre-independence years.
It is fortunate that Jim dared to take on so huge a task and did it so well. The colonial Highlands were extraordinary. Highlanders who saw the first outsiders pass below their mountain ridges also saw, not always happily, the end of Australian rule. They reacted swiftly and creatively to momentous change. As often remarked, the kiaps they met had more powers in their districts than the King of England had in his, but as Jim wrote in 1964, “it is the task of the field officer” to prepare the people for eventual independence. “It is an honourable task”, he added.
It is a valuable work for all those with an interest in the history of PNG and should be placed in all PNG school libraries besides those overseas.
Reviewer: Bill Gammage
UV: The Patrol Post up in the Sky by Malcolm ‘Chips’ Mackellar is an ode dedicated to the memory of all kiaps. As The Patrol Post up in the Sky was published in the book Sivarai, we publish a review of this book by Keith Jackson, a former president of PNGAA. It sets the context in which this poem was written.
Author: Chips Mackellar
Paperback 302 pages.
Pukpuk Publishing 2013. Available from Amazon.
27 evocative short stories about the way PNG once was
It turns out – and when the truth dawned some years ago, this caught me by surprise – that the great storytellers about Papua New Guinea in colonial times have been the kiaps.
Of course as patrol officers they had much fecund material to work with, but I always reckoned the school teachers, being formally educated in how to instruct others in the English language and its grammar and vocabulary, as well as having plenty of time to themselves in those remote bush schools, might have gravitated to the role of tribal chroniclers.
Well, with some notable exceptions such as Trevor Shearston (Something in the blood) Eric Johns and his most useful histories, and a small number of others, it didn’t happen that way.
Instead we got the rich, evocative and so readable offerings of authors like Jack Hides (writing in the 1930s) Ian Downs, James Sinclair, Phil Fitzpatrick, Bob Cleland, John Fowke, Michael O’Connor, Laurie Meintjes and many more.
And now, thanks to Phil Fitzpatrick’s assiduous cultivation of the writing of and about Papua New Guinea, indigenous and expatriate, we have a wonderful collection of 27 of Dr Mackellar’s short stories, a couple of which, by way of appetiser, have been published in PNG Attitude – Cabbage and Honour Among Thieves.
The book Sivarai (which in Motu simply means ‘story’) is adorned with a cover photograph of a pair of buxom young Trobriand Islands women – which tells us a little about the author without a single word being consumed. Appropriately, although it seems a little unfair to single out one of these beautifully crafted stories for special attention, the one that strikes me as demonstrating both fine writing and authorial honesty is The Mile High Club. Without giving too much away, Mackellar discloses how – in the course of a short plane flight – he simultaneously breached the Native Womens’ Protection Ordinance, the kiaps’ no fraternisation rule, and the Police chain of command all in one blissful act.
Malcolm (Chips) Mackellar went to Papua New Guinea as a cadet patrol officer in 1953, serving in five districts and rising to the rank of Assistant District Commissioner before transferring to the bench as a magistrate in Wabag and Port Moresby. He left PNG in 1981 after nearly 30 years’ service during which he saw the former colony transition into and beyond independence.
Sivarai sparkles with anecdote and finely-drawn reminiscence. Mackellar is a great observer of incident, humanity and nuance. The characters – and PNG was replete with them – come bouncing off the page and the stories are related with a freshness that makes you feel you are in the story and not just reading it. If you served in colonial PNG, Sivarai will help you recall why you loved it so much; and if you didn’t, it’ll make you wish you were there.
Mackellar writes in the Epilogue – ‘It is a long time since we patrolled the jungles and the islands of Papua New Guinea but we will take our memories, like those recorded in this book, with us when we prepare for our last patrol, which will take us on that long, long journey to that big Patrol Post in the Sky’. And, if Mackellar is representative, those kiaps will go with a chuckle and a sense of a job that was both well done and with a streak of larrikinism.
Chips Mackellar has done PNG’s past a great favour by compiling this collection and Phil Fitzpatrick has done a wonderful job in publishing such a well-designed and thoughtfully-edited book.
Keith Jackson 27 January 2014