The beachcombers: Chips MacKellar

(Published Una Voce, December 1996 and in Tales of Papua New Guinea, page 157)

Malcolm (Chips) MacKellar
1953-1955 CPO Daru and Lake Murray (Western District)
1955-1956 P.O. Mount Hagen (Western Highlands District)
1957 ASOPA Long Course
1958-1964 PO at Madang and Bogia: ADC at Saidor (Madang District)
1964-1968 ADC Esa’ala, Samarai and Trobriand Islands (Milne Bay District)
1969-1970 Queensland University – B.A. (Anthropology)
1971-1972 ADC Kaiapit and Menyamya (Morobe District)
1972-1974 Enga District, District Court Magistrate, Wabag
1974-1980 District Court Magistrate, Ela Beach Court House, Port Moresby

The Trobriand Islands had more than the average share of beachcombers. This was because of the idyllic setting. The blue lagoons, the waving palm trees, and the beautiful bare-breasted island girls together constituted the epitome of the Pacific Island Paradise. Naturally, this Paradise attracted the usual contingent of drifters. However, having drifted to the Trobriands, the drifters never wanted to leave.

Remote from the central administrative authority of Port Moresby, the ADC Losuia was the sole representative of government in what was otherwise a windswept island Eden. There were no tribal fights, no robberies, no serious assaults, and no clash of cultures other than those imposed by the distant government in Port Moresby. Now and again however, the activities of the beachcombers often attracted the attention of the local officialdom which, when I was ADC Losuia, was me.

The Trobriand Island beachcombers were a diverse lot, but they had several attributes in common. To begin with, they all had an enormous capacity for alcohol. They not only lived on beer, they thrived on it. Secondly, they were all good fixit men. They could fix anything from a dripping tap to a diesel engine, and in this context they were indispensable in these remote islands where mainstream technical assistance was otherwise unavailable. It was their fixit capacity which compensated for all their other shortcomings and which supplied them with what passed for a livelihood. Apart from operating small trade stores, the beachcombers survived by doing odd jobs for the Council, the Missions, the Government, and the local tourist hotel, but in most cases, their motivation for hard work lasted only until they had earned enough to restock their beer supplies.

Thirdly, the island girls adored them. I never understood why, because none of the beachcombers looked like gallant romeos to me, yet on many occasions I witnessed Trobriand girls fighting each other for the attentions of a beachcomber. The beachcombers however, did speak enough of the local language to chat up the girls, and in return for certain favours, the girls could expect hand outs from the trade stores, discounts, and other advantages. There was therefore a cyclic flow of goods for services from their trade stores which in this sense blended the beachcombers comfortably into the traditional Trobriand society.

Fourthly, these beachcombers were usually on the verge of doing something constructive, only to be distracted from their endeavours by the exotic diversions of the islands. Friendly, helpful and tolerant, the beachcombers in the final analysis, could be described as a talented bunch of likeable no hopers, trapped into perpetual indolence by the listless nirvana of the islands.

Because of the then government policy of privatisation, one beachcomber named Neil had been granted the Post Office and Commonwealth Savings Bank Agency. Because of this arrangement, the Trobriand Island Local Government Council, of which I was the Council Adviser, conducted its banking through him.

One day I received a frantic call from Port Moresby. The Council, I was told, was bankrupt. Its expenditure had exceeded its revenue. Immediately I checked the Council’s accounts. Bank statements did indicate a deteriorating bank balance, but on the other hand, receipts from the local CSB agency showed continual revenue deposits, to such an amount that the bank balance should have been favourable. Therefore, I went down to Neil’s store to check.

When I arrived, Neil and three other beachcombers were having morning tea. Morning beer, that is. ‘Just as well you came,’ one said, ‘it’s your shout. Save us from getting up.’ In the beachcombers’ lexicon, ‘shouting’ beer did not mean you bought it, it meant you fetched it from the fridge. There was never any argument over who bought the beers, since the owner of the premises had already paid. However, as the day wore on, it became increasingly difficult for the beachcombers to get out of their chairs to fetch more beer from the fridge, and even more difficult to remember who had fetched the last round. So the arrival of a newcomer solved these problems. It was always his ‘shout’ whether he drank or not. I went to the fridge, and brought them all one can of beer each. I then told them of the problem with the Council’s finances. ‘I knew it,’ said Neil, the Council’s banker, ‘I told you government blokes these people are not fit for self government. They can’t even keep a set of Council books straight.’

I told them I had receipts for Council deposits in Neil’s bank. I suggested Neil might not have sent the deposits to the Council’s account with the Commonwealth Bank in Port Moresby. What an insult, they all said, to accuse Neil of such incompetence. Anyway, since I was still standing, and they were not, it was my shout again. So I brought more beers.

There then followed a general tirade about native incompetence and this tirade lasted for hours. During this time I continued to serve them more beer, since I needed their cooperation to help solve the problem. Finally, after much coaxing, I managed to get Neil to part with the keys of his Savings Bank safe. I then unlocked the safe, and as the door swung open, a deluge of cash and cheques tumbled out onto the floor between us. I picked up some of the cheques and examined them. They were all made out to the Council, some of them more than a year old.

For a moment, all four beachcombers stared in disbelief at this heap of money spread across the floor in front of them. The mess of unbanked cheques and cash must have constituted more than one year’s revenue for the Council. ‘Ah, well,’ said Neil when confronted with this evidence, ‘I was meaning to send it in to Port Moresby, but I forgot. Anyway, it’s still your shout. Let’s have another beer.’

After a few more beers, none of them noticed that the safe door was still open with heaps of money still scattered across the floor. While they droned on and on about native incompetence, I collected all the cash and cheques into a mail bag and took it back to the Council Chambers. There the clerk and I counted it all out and to our amazement, it balanced right to the last dollar. I subsequently sent it all by registered mail to the Commonwealth Bank in Port Moresby and so the Council became a solvent corporate body again.

And in an effort to improve the management of the islands’ essential services which operated from this store, I conspired one day with Neil’s house girl. I suggested that she cook and serve Neil one good meal each day. This, I explained, might soak up the beer and might help to improve Neil’s stamina. However, even the best laid plans of officialdom could not upset the natural tempo of a beachcomber’s life.

I was present one lunch time at the store when the girl brought Neil the first of these meals. Neil was so surprised to see good food that he was momentarily nonplussed. ‘Put it in the fridge, and I’ll eat it later,’ Neil commanded, ‘and bring us a beer.’ Two weeks later, I again returned to the store on Council business, this time to be told by Neil and the other beachcombers, that it was my shout. I went to the fridge to fetch their beers, only to see that there were thirteen dinners, untouched, stacked plate upon plate in the fridge. ‘You havn’t eaten any food for two weeks,’ I told Neil. ‘Aw, shit. I forgot,’ said Neil, ‘anyway, let’s have a beer instead.’

It never ceased to amaze me how any of the beachcombers’ enterprises could ever run at a profit. On one occasion I was driving out to inspect a council project when I came across two Trobriand girls fighting each other in the middle of the road, in front of a beachcomber’s trade store. Beside the store on the verandah of the adjoining house, two beachcombers were drinking beer, and watching the girls fight. Across the road was a gathering of Trobriand people sitting under a tree waiting for the store to open. No one else took any notice of the girls fighting, but as I was the pinnacle of law and order in the Trobriands, I felt obliged to intervene. I stopped the Landrover, got out, and separated the girls, holding them apart from each other long enough for them to quieten down. Each blamed the other for starting the fight, but both seemed happy that I had intervened. When they were friends again, I sent them away in different directions.

The beachcombers had continued to watch from the verandah of the house, drinking their beers in silence. Since they were obvious witnesses to the fight, I walked over to the house and asked the beachcombers why the fight had started.

‘They were fighting over old Joe, here.’ One beachcomber indicated the other.

‘Why didn’t you stop them?’ I asked.

‘Arrr that’s women’s business,’ the beachcomber said, ‘we can’t interfere in that. Anyway,’ he added, ‘can’t you see we’re having smoke-oh. You want a beer?’ I declined, but as it was late in the morning, and there were customers waiting, I asked them when the store would open. ‘When we finish smoke-oh,’ they said, and they called for the house girl to bring more beer.

I continued about my business, and returned again later in the afternoon, on my way back to the Losuia government station. A larger number of islanders were patiently waiting for the store to open, and the beachcombers were still sitting on the verandah drinking beer, and by this time, looking somewhat under the weather. “Did the store open,” I asked casually, looking at the increasing number of customers, who were now beginning to settle in for the night. Some were lighting fires and cooking meals and others were spreading sleeping mats on the ground.

‘We meant to open just after you left,’ Joe said, ‘but it was then lunch time. So we had a few more beers. And then before we knew it, it was afternoon tea time, so we had a few more beers. And now it’s closing time, so it’s too late to open now. Anyway, I think it’s time for another beer. Why don’t you go inside and get a beer for yourself, and bring us some too?’ I went inside and saw the house girl in the process of clearing away a mountain of empty beer cans. As I took three beer cans from the fridge, I asked the house girl how long the customers could expect to wait for the store to open.

‘Until the beer is finished, Taubada,’ she said, and making a quick estimate from the remaining beer stock, she added ‘three days’. And she was right.

I later learned that for the next three mornings in succession, the beachcombers awoke with alcoholic remorse for the waiting customers, and prepared to open the trade store for business. However, during each of these three days, they never quite made it. After a heart starter for breakfast, it was time for a beer for morning tea, and then more beer for elevenses, and then more beer for lunch, and so on throughout each day until it was closing time for the store, and then it was too late for the store to open. So they had more beer and went to sleep.

And sure enough, just as the house girl had predicted, as the fourth day dawned, the beachcombers resurrected themselves through their collective alcoholic fog, and finding no more beer, they just went to work, and the store opened for business as usual.

Some time during this fourth day, I stopped by the store on my way to another job. By this time, several hundred people were camped outside the store, waiting to be served. Over the last few days they had sailed their canoes in from the outlying islands and although the store was then closed, there was no point in them returning home empty handed, so they just waited. But instead of turning into a bunch of impatient customers, the gathering had acquired the atmosphere of a three day carnival, with children singing, girls flirting, and mothers preparing meals on scattered cooking fires. Also, the customers had used the long wait for the store to open as a good opportunity for them to conduct traditional kula exchanges, catch up on the news from other islands, arrange inter-island marriages, and organise the forthcoming yam harvest and so on. For the Trobrianders, waiting was part of life. They waited for the tide to turn, the sea to abate, the wind to change, or the fish to bite. So, a few days’ wait for a store to open was, for them, normal Trobriand Island behaviour. And it was because of this tradition of waiting patiently, that the lethargic lifestyle of the beachcombers fitted perfectly into the measured tempo of the Islands.

When I called in later in the day, the last of the customers was being happily served.

‘Gee. We did good business today,’ I heard one beachcomber tell the other, ‘but we better order more beer. I think we’re out of stock.’

Great plans were afoot I was told one day, the beachcombers were going to form a company, and build a tourist hotel on the island. It was a typical beachcomber plan, doomed from the beginning to fail.

Neil was to arrange the finance, Glen who was said to be a bit of an architect, would design the hotel, and Joe who was once a builder’s labourer, would build it. Since I was ex-officio building inspector, and ex-officio assistant licensing commissioner, I took a residual interest in the planning of this enterprise, but I knew it would never succeed.

From the very beginning the enterprise bogged down because Glen could not draw the plans till Neil told him what the budget was, and Neil could not plan a budget until Joe told him what materials were to be used, and Joe did not know what materials to use until he had seen Glen’s plans. Other beachcombers who were to subcontract could not start anything until somebody else did something else first. The cyclic arguments went on for months, during which time each beachcomber separately, waited for the others to initiate something, before starting anything himself.

So, as Assistant Licensing Inspector, I decided to attend one of their meetings to see what the problem was.

Yes you guessed it! When I arrived at Neil’s trade store at 10am, the beachcombers were still having breakfast. Beer, that is. By the time I got them all focussed on the hotel project, Joe interrupted. ‘Hang on,’ he said, ‘we can’t talk high finance yet, because it’s morning tea time. Your shout, Neil’ and Neil brought more beer. And so it went on, and on, all day, interspersed by the house girl’s interjections from the kitchen that people were waiting outside for the store to open.

‘Ask them to wait,’ Neil commanded. ‘Can’t you see we’re in conference. Bring more beer.’ And later that day, when I drove back to Losuia Government Station, they were still in “conference”.

The beachcombers’ hotel never eventuated. Like all other beachcomber plans, it slowly dissolved into a fog of indolence, and later became lost in the lethargy of the islands….

For me, the Trobriands were so idyllic that they loomed unreal in the modern world. Like the beachcombers, I could have stayed there for years, but instead I took myself off to Queensland University to become an educated kiap, and also to renew my acquaintance with the harsh real world beyond the blue lagoons.

But I will never forget the Trobriands, and I will never forget the beachcombers who lived there. It was in these islands that the beachcombers learned how to escape the stress and strife of modern life simply by ignoring it. For them, the Trobriands were a Paradise in the sun, and they loved this island Paradise.


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