The Evennett family and Samari: Jeff Evennett

The name “Evennett” is familiar to anyone who has spent time in Samarai. Ernie Evennett’s forebears lived in Essex, England. Sometime around the middle of the 19th Century, three Evennett brothers migrated to Australia. One of the brothers,
Charles, ended up in Rockhampton, Queensland. Charles got caught up in the Gold Fever that swept through Australia, and in 1873, along with his wife and five young children (three boys and two girls) he set sail for the Palmer River Goldfields. A week into the voyage he died, aged only 44. His widow remarried but kept the name Evennett for her five children. The three boys, Charles Jnr, Frederick and Ernest, became gold miners for a short while, but soon took up trading, and supplying food, hardware and labour. Ernie’s grandfather, Ernest, and his two brothers started coming to Samarai in 1894 and established themselves as traders and planters. Their sister Emily married John Adam Craig and was also a pioneer in Samarai. Ernie was the last link to the English Evennetts.

Even back then, the brothers regarded Samarai as their home. They transported four houses from Cooktown to Samarai. They took the “Queenslanders” apart, panel by panel, in Cooktown, loaded them onto the schooners they owned, and sailed
them to Samarai. How many trips this took is not known, but it was a feat in itself.

The houses were rebuilt: one on Samarai for Ernest (in later years called “the Bake House”), one on the headland at Mwaneuna Point for Frederick, one on the hill at Lei Lei for Charles, and one was apparently sold to Mr Munt at Nivani Island near Misima. The Bake House had to be rebuilt after WWII but the houses at Mwaneuna and Lei Lei survive to this day. The Nivani house was taken down a few years ago.

Rumour had it that the boys were “blackbirders”. That is not true, the following story is much closer to the truth. It started when Charles bought leases at Mwawneuna, Lei Lei, Dawa Dawa, Ito and Bole Bole. He had the leases but not the plantations. What he had was bush that he needed to clear before he could even plant coconut trees. Frederick was given the task of finding the labour, and he sailed to Wagifa Island at Goodenough to recruit. He ended up doing this for another 40 years. He was well known in the area and respected as an honest businessman. Frederick lost his life at Mud Bay in 1941, but not in the war. He had gone into Mud Bay to pick up some labour. One of the boys called out, “Hey Taubada!! …plenty fish‘” There was a huge school of Kaduna close to the boat. When Taubada lit the dynamite fuse with his pipe, the fuse curled around and somehow lit itself where it joins the dynamite. He was too late to throw it into the water. His grave is still kept clean by the government workers at Mapamoiwa. The brothers cleared and planted acres and acres of coconut. In those early days, a lot of copra came from small village groves and gardens, there were only a few established plantations.

Ernie’s father, Joseph, was the first white baby born in the north Queensland township of Coen, in 1902. Ernie was born on 6 February 1935 at Cairns Base Hospital. He was named after his grandfather. His siblings were Lionel, Colin and Patricia. His parents moved to Samarai and operated the bakery and a small trading business on Samarai Island. Only a year after they arrived in Samarai, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. The family was evacuated to Cairns on 27 December 1941 on a Sunderland seaplane. Samarai was burnt to the ground: it was feared the Japanese would occupy it and use it as a base to attack the Australian mainland.

In 1945 the family returned to Samarai and rebuilt the The Bake House. Ernie attended the local primary school, but when the time came for him to go to high school in Australia, he ran away to his uncle’s plantation at Mwawaneuna and hid in the plantation for two days until the ship left, and he then returned to Samarai. He had inadvertently charted his destiny. His father was naturally angry, but got him to work in the bakery, carting and loading firewood from the mainland to keep the bakery ovens going. Ernie worked all his teenage years doing this, and delivering bread and groceries from Samarai to the nearby communities. It was during this time that Ernie got himself a little launch and called it Yalasi. Then Ernie’s father bought a 32 ft launch in Sydney and shipped it to Samarai on the MV Bulolo. The new launch was called the Sirius. Ernie continued working for the bakery and in the early 60s he inherited the Sirius and began his own business doing charters and getting the contract for lineboat and tender services on Samarai Island. The Sirius also did tender work for the Catalina flying-boat which flew between Samarai and other Milne Bay areas, and also to Port Moresby.

Ernie’s two brothers, Lionel and Colin, also kept the family‘s pioneering and seafaring tradition alive by captaining Government trawlers. Ernie was quite a dashing young bachelor in his time, and the Sirius was a fast and powerful boat. The Sirius was always pulling ropes of the big steamers and zipping around the wharf and the dolphins. Ernie used to sit on the roof of his boat and drive it with his feet through a hatch. His crew boy was Kaniku Toginitu, from Tube Tube Island.

Ernie soon caught the eye of Lynette Hancock who stayed with her parents on Ebuma Island, and a romance ensued. Ernie married Lynn in Samarai in 1960 and had two daughters, Gina and Maria. He then moved to Ebuma and built himself a small house on the southern beach front. This house was to become his home for many years to follow.

Just prior to this, he was delivering some cargo to the Wilkinson family at Sewa Bay where he met a young woman and, after a brief relationship, Ernie’s first son, Jimmy Ceddia was born. Ernie and Jimmy’s mother never married. Ernie and Lynn Hancock separated in 1973 and Lynn took Gina and Maria to live in Sydney.

Ernie sold the Sirius and bought a boat from the Anglican Mission, the St George which he renamed the Georgina. The names Georgina and Ernie Evennett were to be entwined for many years.

1n 1974 Ernie met Marjorie Masiboda from Kitava Island. Marjorie was working for Col Scown who had a reject copra cleaning business on Ebuma Island. Ernie and Marjorie had five children: Abel, Willie, Joe, Bruce, and Melanie.

Ernie’s love for his children was a thing to be admired. Because of his upbringing, Ernie was often caught between his traditional white upbringing and his new family. Ernie was born to a colonial family which liked to keep races apart, but the
subsequent years allowed Ernie’s family to find their own unique niche in Samarai and Milne Bay society. Ernie became a Papua New Guinea Citizen after independence. This alone reflected his vision of his future.

Ernie’s wife Marjorie was a mainstay in Ebuma life. She supported her husband and made the Island a lovely home. Marjorie passed away in 2000, a victim of cancer. Ernie and Marjorie had been a good influence not only on their own
children, but on others like myself, my brother Richard, Tim Abel and many others.

Staying at Ebuma, Ernie and Marjorie had met many people from all walks of life. All kinds of people came to visit and stay: visiting yachtsmen, businessmen, prime ministers, governors-general, millionaires, villagers, doctors, lawyers, Indians and
chiefs. They all came to Ebuma and were told to “Pull up a rock”. There was no special treatment from Ernie and Marjorie. Ernie saw nothing wrong with offering a governor-general or visiting dignitary an enamel plate of fried fish and banana.

This apparent carefree attitude toward all and sundry was just the way it was. If the pantry was bare, the kids would jump in the Panama and a quick spin around the rocks would yield a dinner never to be forgotten. This lack of airs and graces and an honest down-to-earth approach to life was to become Ernie’s signature. He was loath to wear shoes: a pair of green slippers had to be sufficient if Ernie was invited out for a meal or drink; I have never seen him with his shirt tucked in.

The children grew up with boats. Even going to school on Samarai was by boat. Ernie never had any money to speak of. He often said to me when I was broke, “We Evennetts are too kind to be rich”. He was right of course: I have witnessed Ernie’s
generosity many times. He always did his best to ensure that the kids got the best he could offer. After his wife Marjorie died, Ernie later re-married Ruth, and became father again to her children.

There are many things synonymous with the name Ernie Evennett: boats and the sea life are the foremost of these. After the Georgina sank at Goodenough Island, there were several other boats. Ernie Evennett just could not stay ashore too long.
Then the Vinaritokae came on the scene. The Vinari as it was called was a famous one. Ernie decided in 1985 to take the kids to Australia to visit family. But he hated flying so he packed up the family and sailed the Vinari from Samarai to Port
Moresby, then to Thursday Island, Cooktown, and Cairns. In Cairns, he anchored the boat, bought an old bomb Holden Station Wagon for $500 and drove all the way to Sydney with the family and crew. He then drove all the way back to Cairns,
sold the car for $500 and got back on the Vinari and came all the way back to Samarai.

There are many many stories about this trip. When the mob arrived in Port Moresby, I was working for Steamships at the Coastal Shipping wharf. I asked for a week off and joined them. Half-way to Thursday Island we anchored at Stevens
Island. It was about 3 pm and there was no sign of life. Willie asked his father, “Dad, are we in Australia yet?” When Ernie said yes, Willie asked, “When am I going to see an Aboriginal?” Just then an aluminium dinghy started buzzing across the
reef top, the propeller occasionally catching the coral. Ernie just watched and told Willie, “Looks like you‘re gonna meet your first Aboriginal, son”. The Islander parked the dinghy next to the Vinari. He had an unlit cigarette hanging out of his
mouth. He looked up at all of us looking down at him and said, “Any of you blokes got a light?”

After the Vinari, the Arona came and went, as did the Morning Star, followed by others. In later years Ernie was given the Oceanus to look after, and the lifestyle suited Ernie. His last trip was from Alotau to Samarai, his beloved home. Tomorrow Ernie will do that trip again for the last time. Truly a fitting farewell voyage for our own “Old Man of The Sea”.

Ernie Evennett had many friends. Every island he anchored at there was always somebody who paddled out to the boat to say hello. His knowledge of this Province and its people was second to none. Ernest William Evennett will be buried at Kumwagea Village on Kitava Island next to Marjorie.


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