Australia’s Imperialist Nostalgia: Papua New Guinea

The good old days” – how many times have you heard that phrase in relation to Papua New Guinea?

I recently came across a letter from Geoffrey Luck (former ABC News Editor who lived in PNG from the 1950s to 1960s) to the Editor of Quadrant Magazine attacking a piece of journalism that presented a rather blatant critique of Australia’s bleak Pacific foreign policy regarding Papua New Guinea prior to our independence.

The article which prompted Luck to parry, judged Australia as being “diffident colonisers who governed with casual practicality and who departed with alacrity and too little care”.

Luck’s letter accused the author of the article of having “popular amnesia” concerning Australian achievements in colonial PNG and went on to state that Australia in PNG was “the world’s first truly altruistic colonial administration…(and)…that it was essentially the altruism which brought this country’s (Australia’s) premature withdrawal, contributing to the chaos we see today”.

Luck went on to say that if Australians had departed too soon, it was because, as Kim Beazley Snr wrote in 1960, “This is a world in which the irresistible illogic of nationalism reduces democracy to the absurd” – and that Beazley Snr’s assessment could be the epitaph of Papua New Guinea.

His claim that Australia’s relationship with PNG was the “the world’s first truly altruistic colonial administration” can be challenged, because obviously, not every Australian was unselfishly concerned for or devoted to the welfare of Papua New Guinea (coffee, copra, cocoa planters and gold hunters just to name a few). However, that is not my argument – my argument lies with the issues Luck’s statements raise, particularly within the modern context of the Australia and PNG relationship.

When one examines Australia’s modern relationship with PNG, there is no doubt that therein lies sequences of nostalgic sentiments of how things used to be – and indeed, an entertainment of how things would have been like for Australia had PNG become its seventh state.

Sometimes I wonder whether these sequences of nostalgic sentiments manifest themselves in the arrogant manner in which Australia tries to command the Pacific.

Some say that nostalgia is, in its connection with childhood, an emotion toward lost innocence. To feel nostalgia for past cultures is, arguably, to produce an innocence in them that most likely never existed and also to reproduce the relationship of colonial domination that would subordinate less ‘developed’ peoples.

I think that Australia’s imperialist nostalgia perspective regarding PNG is none better reflected than in the case of Rabaul. One only has to look at Australian literature concerning Rabaul, both pre and post independence – and particularly, after the eruption of Tavurvur in September 1994, to understand this point.

Here are some examples:

Delightful evenings, replete with tropical moon, good liquor and good fellowship may be spent at the New Britain or New Guinea Clubs, where entertainment is always on a grand scale. To the famed Frangipani (sic) Ball, at the latter, come guests from hundreds of miles away; and the ladies wear gowns that would grace the swankiest nightspots of the mainland…Yes, Rabaul seems to be happy under the spell of the tropics. In their tax-free island paradise, the people work and relax without care for the red shadow that may be thrown over them at any moment by old Matape [Mt Tavurvur] – (Thomas Wynyard, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 January, 1951).

Mango Avenue, Rabaul, 1933

And: 

In past decades, expats living in Rabaul enjoyed a charmed and charming existence. Crime was hardly heard of. People left houses unlocked to hit the local pub life, or to get out on the water in their sailing yachts or game fishing boats. Down to the New Guinea Club, the yacht club, or any of the watering holes, no parking hassles, no stress…a gem compared with the other urban centres…To many, returning from holidays to Rabaul was returning home…For the people who once inhabited the good-time city of Rabaul a return is not imminent, but that’s what the Australian administrators said after 1937. Within 9 months, the first sign of plant life, the frangipanis, began flowering again – (Sarah Harris, Daily Telegraph Mirror, 25 September 1994).

And:

Rabaul was the most beautiful town in the Pacific this side of Madang. Nestled in the northward curve of a deep and well-protected harbour, it was rich, fun, relaxed. Those who live there say there was something about its atmosphere that meant you never wanted to leave. But we should say ‘lived there’. No-one is living in Rabaul now. It is covered in volcanic ash, in some places more than a meter thick. In the once grand Travelodge on the eastern side of the town, the roof has caved in and the ash is as high as the bar – (Judith Whelan, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 September 1994).

The Rabaul described here is one inhabited by European expatriates – Papua New Guineans are absent. The articles present Rabaul as the sort of place where people spent their time drinking in clubs and doing sports, where time didn’t matter and where socialising at the various clubs was a daily pastime.

The New Guinea Club, 2008

The New Guinea Club, 2008

The articles don’t say that the lifestyle of the day, which is being yearned for, was a direct result of the high salaries of European expatriates and the low cost of living which reflected the low wages for the majority of the Papua New Guinean population. The articles written after independence don’t make the note that the large numbers of expatriates left (19 years after Independence) was a legacy of the colonial education system which failed to train enough Papua New Guineans for the jobs still occupied by expatriates.

In effect, the past which these articles yearn for, is not so much the real Rabaul as it was, but a Rabaul that excludes anything outside of the New Guinea Club and golf course.

And herein lies the problem. Why? 

Because there is a danger in Australia and Australians haggling onto the past – of having an imperialist nostalgic perspective of PNG, its towns, and its people. For in doing so, for longing so much of how things used to be, we lose focus of what things are. The present and recent past of some towns are forever forgotten in favour of the past.

Not only that, but central to the imperialist nostalgic perspective of PNG, there is no space for the Papua New Guinean. Where was he? He wasn’t the one playing golf, dancing at the Frangipani Ball, or having a beer at the yacht club. He was instead most likely the caddie, the waiter, and the barman.

So, on the verge of our nation’s 33rd Independence, let us celebrate what has happened in the past, but let us not dwell on “the good old days“. They are merely a figment of our memories now – historically true yet simulataneously historically inequitable.

Instead, let us anticipate and plan ahead. Let us contribute to this nation in order to achieve our full potential. Let us manage our resources to the best of our abilities and let us make righteous decisions for the benefit of the people of Papua New Guinea – not only for the sake of those that have gone, but more importantly, for those who are yet to come.

Happy Independence Papua New Guinea – I Love You.

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~ by Tavurvur on September 11, 2008.

5 Responses to “Australia’s Imperialist Nostalgia: Papua New Guinea”

  1. Great Read, thank you and Happy Anniversary!

  2. True true, back then I’d probably be working in some plantation, instead of my own business

  3. There was an article in The National not too long ago that described how a Papuan “boi” from Port Moresby was hanged for simply looking at a white woman which was somehow deemed to be “visual rape”.

    Have times changed or what?

  4. Double check sources and stories. Some things in print about the colonial days are trivially refutable cr*p, invented by the politically correct. One of the most prolific cr*ppers was academic at UPNG during ’60s.
    CofA and Admin employees certainly had a lazy time in the 50s-70s. Rabaul town was a little different in that quite a number of pre-war business people moved back and ran the town their way.

  5. I was born in Rabaul in 1954, lived in Kokopo. My Grandfather owned copra planations. He was loved by the Papuan’s and he treated them with respect.

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