The Curious Case of Christopher Robinson: by John Quinn

On a now-deserted street in the largely derelict town of Samarai can be found one of the most curious and fascinating artifacts in the Australian history of Papua New Guinea – the Memorial Cenotaph of a Christopher Robinson. Why this young man (only 32 years old), in his job for just over a year, dead by his own hand and with no relationship to Samarai was granted such an enduring monument is one of those strange historical events that still fascinate today—involving, as it does, murder, cannibalism, head-hunting, punitive expeditions, and a Royal Commission back in the early days of European domination of this now independent nation.
The Memorial consists of three solid blocks of granite, topped by a 3-meter granite column; on the top block is engraved

IN MEMORY OF CHRISTOPHER ROBINSON
ABLE GOVERNOR
UPRIGHT JUDGE
AND HONEST MAN
DIED 20TH JUNE 1904
AGED 32 YEARS

Underneath comes the following statement, which today would be described by those zealots, who wish to change history to fit their own interpretation, as racist, insensitive, provocative, bigoted, demeaning and so on (1)

HIS AIM WAS TO MAKE NEW GUINEA A GOOD COUNTRY FOR WHITE MEN

There is other lettering on the other blocks and a Google Search will enable anybody interested to view the monument and read the other statements.

Let’s go back only a few years to the commencement of this saga.

It must be remembered that the land then known to Europeans as British New Guinea was legally under the control of the British Empire, though mostly financed by contributions from the various colonial of the eastern colonies of Australia – mainly the Queensland Government. On the 8th April 1901, the well-known London Missionary Society’s Reverend James Chalmers, accompanied by the Reverend Oliver Tompkins, Naragai a big-man from Kiwai island, Rarotongan teacher Hiro and ten male students from the missionary school went ashore at Dopima village on Goaribari Island in what is today’s Gulf Province. They hoped to bring “the Word of the Lord and the Blessings of Missionary Civilization” to the people who lived there.

The village men had visited Chalmers’ boat Niue the previous day and decided to loot it. Invitations were sent to other villages on the island inviting them to join in. The missionary party was invited into the dubu (longhouse) where they were set-upon by their hosts and all were killed and cannibalized. Their skulls were displayed as a traditional trophy in the Men’s Long House! There is now a small memorial on the actual site where these murders occurred.

British retribution and vengeance were swift, with no thought of a careful investigation and the legal arrest of those responsible. Then British Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Le Hunte led a punitive expedition to the island, indiscriminately opening fire to kill 24 locals, burning Men’s Houses in all ten villages on the island and causing the terrified islanders to flee to the mainland; naturally, there were no casualties on the Government’s side except for a night sentry slightly wounded by an arrow. Le Hunte’s men captured some of the alleged killers and then returned to Port Moresby, though he sailed back to the area in March 1902 and was given the alleged skull of Chalmers. This must have been one of the last actions of the British administration of the British Protectorate, because possession was passed to the new Commonwealth of Australia on the 18th March 1902.

There was seemingly no official recrimination of Le Hunte’s actions by the new Australian Commonwealth Government, though he was replaced by the subject of our story – Christopher Robinson – who was appointed by Prime Minister Edmund Barton as Acting Administrator on the 9th June 1903. Robinson was the first Australian-born person appointed to this position, though various authorities were not too impressed, one stating he “seemed to show little sympathy to the indigenous population” and another describing him as “a blithering idiot”!

Robinson, oddly enough, decided to revisit Goarabari Island on March 6th, 1904 with European Police Officer Commandant W. C. Bruce, a number of armed Papuan police, and other personnel on board the official Governor’s vessel, the Merrie England in order to effect the arrest of others involved in the Chalmer’s party murder. The vessel dropped anchor and the locals came out in canoes with women and men coming “alongside in a friendly way, some boarding the steamer”, according to the later Royal Commission, which I have used rather than articles from some of the Australian papers of the time. These tend to show that modern Fake News does have a long ancestry. One of the Goaribaris on board was then pointed out as one of the murderers of Chalmers and was seized by the Police whilst others on board were also grabbed.

This action must have been regarded by the tribesmen as an act of treachery and the friendly atmosphere collapsed with arrows being fired from bows and the Police opening panicked, uncontrolled rifle fire. The European Police Officer (Bruce) had to use physical force to try and stop his men, with Robinson himself engaging in the indiscriminate shooting. Some 260-300 shots were fired with eight Goaribari men killed and an unknown number were wounded.

Charles Abel, the founder of Kwato LMS Mission near Samarai, heard about the affair and immediately sailed to Brisbane and demanded a Royal Commission, which even more curiously was quickly granted even though there were “now happily fading traditions of Northern Queensland of the time when the native blacks were treated almost as noxious game”! Royal Commissioner C.E.R. Murray was tasked with delving into the affair. His subsequent report was scathing, best summarized “as a total breakdown in discipline and control on the Merrie England”. Robinson was made aware of the Royal Commission’s adverse findings just before it was officially tabled and rather than face humiliation, suffering also from malaria and deep depression, he walked out to the flagstaff of Government House in Port Moresby and shot himself in the head, dying fifteen minutes later.

The Memorial, according to old reports, was financed and erected by “citizens of Samarai”, mainly the European miners in the early 1900s, who were working gold mines on Sudest, Woodlark and Misima Islands and that it may have been situated there as a reproach to the Abel family on nearby Kwato mission island. There must have been deep feelings at the time as a further inscription states “This stone was here set up by the men of New Guinea in recognition of the services of a man who was as well-meaning as he was unfortunate and as kindly as he was courageous”. So, there it stood for years as simply part of the streetscape with nobody, European or Papua New Guinean, taking much notice of it.

I was the last Australian Assistant District Commissioner in Samarai in the mid-1970s and retain a memory of strolling past this Cenotaph with John Guise, then the Local Member of the House of Assembly and later the first Governor-General of The Independent State of Papua New Guinea. I idly remarked to him that I guessed that, on Independence, this Memorial would be thrown off the wharf into the harbour! He replied in emphatic terms, “Certainly not! This is part of our history and must be preserved! Sir John, as he became, with a string of richly deserved honours and awards after his name would be characterised as “very insightful and forgiving when it came to human foibles” and I can only second this opinion.

Then Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare in 2006 declared Samarai as a National Historical Heritage Island and pledged to restore basic services and refurbish monuments and buildings as a tourist attraction; regrettably this good intention seems not to have eventuated.

This is a pity as the whole area makes a wonderful tourist destination, replete with historical associations, white sandy beaches, beautiful islands, coral reefs and wartime underwater wrecks to explore, but most of all with some of the most engaging and friendly people in Papua New Guinea one would wish to meet.

And yes, I am prejudiced about the area!

 

(1) (Note: Australian archivist and historian H. J. Gibbney)

Even so, the government of the day and missionaries had their way in ensuring some semblance of “political correctness” by way of ensuring that the wording replaced what was originally intended: – “… His aim was to make New Guinea a country for white men. Contributing causes of his death were the enmity of minority and the malice of alleged Christians who could not understand the first Christian virtue which is charity”

 

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