Sugar Cane Expedition to PNG – 1928

National Geographic 1929Dr. E.W. Brandes and his team ventured into unexplored jungles of New Guinea in 1929 (1928) on an expedition to find new disease-resistant varieties of sugar cane.

Over a period of three months, they flew a seaplane more than 10,000 miles over unmapped jungles, lakes and ranges for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. New Guinea is the world’s second largest island, located just below the Equator in the western Pacific.

The expedition party included Dr. Jacob Jeswiet, Dutch sugar expert, Mr. C.E. Pemberton, explorer for the Hawaiian Sugar Planter’s Association, Richard K. Peck, airplane pilot of Elgin, Illinois and expedition leader E.W. Brandes PhD.

From Port Moresby, which had a population of about 300 white people, they chartered a ketch, the Vanapa, to transport their supplies, fuel and scientific instruments. Captain Ivan Champion, local resident Roy Bannon, and several natives serving as cook, washboy and airplane crew rounded out the team.

Kikori River: The Polygamists

While the Vanapa was en route to the base camp on the Fly and Strickland Rivers, the seaplane stopped at several small villages on the Kikori River. Polygamy was the order of the day, clothing was negligible or non-existent, married women shaved their heads, and everybody wore elongated pencil-size clam shells in their noses. In one village a huge bamboo tobacco pipe 2-3 feet long was brought out by timid residents to show the white men. Tobacco was rolled into a banana leaf and passed around among the visitors. In another village, friendly natives brought an 18-foot python for a tasty meal.

Since this was the first plane to ever reach the interior of Papua the crew spent the time necessary for photographing and sketch-mapping lakes. As they traveled from village to village, they had many adventures with natives who first ran in horror from the plane, then cautiously approached and eventually warmed up to the foreigners.

Lake Murray: The Cannibals

On Lake Murray the expedition visited six villages. Painted aborigines with spears greeted the plane and went through the now-familiar routine of running and then approaching, but eventually the team got six more varieties of cane. The natives brought out stuffed human heads to exchange for fishhooks, empty cigarette tins and colorful cloth. They pantomimed their techniques for stuffing skulls and head-hunting and it became apparent from their gestures that they practiced cannibalism.

Many weapons were obtained for the Smithsonian during this leg of the journey. Notable among these were split bamboo bows 3” wide and 7-8 ft long and arrows made of cassowary claws that travel more than 20 yards. Some weapons were also made of porcupine quills or spines from dorsal fin of fish, set in hardened latex of some unidentified tree for cement.

Ambunti: The Pygmies

On the Fly River above Everill Junction, near the source of the river, the expedition discovered heavily timbered countryside with tree houses perched 45 feet above the ground with the trunk of a living tree serving as center pole. They garnered six more varieties of sugar canes and bartered as before. The also found and named Lake Herbert Hoover, which lies partly in Dutch and partly in British territory.

Arriving safely back in America, the team planted their collection of about 130 new varieties of cane, selected with a view to disease resistance and adaptability to conditions in the United States. As expedition leader E.W. Brandes said, “Thus we see that races of plants, like races of people, may migrate from one part of the earth to another to multiplay and replenish the earth“.


This summary was written by Marie Brannon.

~ by Tavurvur on March 11, 2009.

6 Responses to “Sugar Cane Expedition to PNG – 1928”

  1. Thanks for posting this – I am actually doing a research project on this expedition which is an intriguing episode in the global history of sugar. While I am pleased to see Marie Brannon’s summary – I thought I would take the opportunity to make some clarifications. The expedition actually went to New Guinea in 1928 (June – September), while the National Geographic article was written in 1929. There purpose was to find new varieties of sugarcane with which to hybridize new strains resistant to sugar cane mosiac a virus ravaging the Louisiana sugar industry. While the United States Department of Agriculture was the primary sponsor, an array of governments and industries were involved such as the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association, the Celotex Company in Chicago, the Colonial Sugar Refining Company in Sydney, and the Administration of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. Pemberton was actually an entomologist for the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association and Peck was both the pilot and primary cinematographer and photographer for the trip. Peck also has the distinction of being involved in the 1926 Dutch-American Expedition to West Papua. Brandes worked for the USDA and was a plant pathologist. But more importantly – Brandes does mention the names of the Papuans who were involved: Gano, the cook; Euki, the wash boy; Emere, crew of the airplane; and Nape who was Brandes assistant. In addition to these named Papuans, a detachment of 8 Papuan Constabulary under Ivan Champion’s command were also present.

    But perhaps most troubling about this post is how Marie Brannon unthinkingly replicates the hyberbolic discourse of the National Geographic article, which though written by Brandes was edited by National Geo. staff to make it more sensational. This article and the expedition partook in the larger visual economy of the 1920s which sensationalized seemingly distant-lands such as New Guinea and seemingly remote and savage people such as the inhabitants of Lake Murray and Kikori. What we need to do is to rethink and unpack these representations and get at the wider strategies of distance and othering that they participate in, and in doing so tease out the indigenous histories and actions involved. For example the inhabitants of Lake Murray had been visited by other Europeans since 1913 and indirectly since 1876. The so-called pygmies they encountered (Ambunti is on the Sepik and was a government station that Brandes and Peck visited later in the trip) were located on the upper Fly River below D’Albertis Junction where the Ok Tedi River joins the Fly. While it is not clear who these people were they are most likely Awin or Yonggom speakers. Stuart Kirsch has written a book – Reverse Anthropology (Stanford 2006) – about the latter. These people were also far from uncontacted and indeed Brandes relates in the article (page 307) how a man named Jarep identified himself and spoke to them in Malay. He had participated in the bird of paradise trade which variously involved communities along the length of the Fly River and Lake Murray. My point in conveying this is that there are other histories and narratives buried within the materials collected and generated by the Sugar expedition, which need to be told and which help clarify what was actually happening in the region, etc. These materials – objects, photographs, and a film – are dispersed between the National Anthropology Archive in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and in our museum collections and in the archives of the National Geographic Society.

    I would be more then happy to write a post for you as my research progresses.

    Joshua A. Bell
    Curator of Globalization
    National Museum of National History
    Smithsonian Institution

  2. Hi Joshua,

    Thank you for your comment. I love PNG History. We (PNG) are a complicated country and I believe that by studying the older texts (even if they are biased – which they all are), one comes away with an understanding, however limited, that there is no other way to achieve.

    The sensationalizing of PNG is not new. It still happens in today’s media – but it seems that the cultural front is no longer the only aspect of PNG that is sensationalized. BUT, that’s beside the point of my post!

    The point of my post here was to highlight PNG’s role in the global sugar cane industry. Who would have thought? Our sugar was used to help develop a crop that was resistant to certain disease?! I never knew that and that is what I find absolutely fascinating about this topic.

    I’m going to take you up on your offer about you writing a post for my Blog as your research progresses. I’ll send you an email!



  3. Good work T! An interesting post.

  4. I couldn’t agree with you more Tavurvur about the sensationalism of PNG. One of my interests in this expedition is how tropes or ideas in the 1920s and 1930s were circulating about supposedly uncontacted ‘stone-age’ people. Friends and I are currently working on an edited book about this historically situated phenomenon which continues to be reinvented into the present. One of my interests in this expedition is to show how its triumphal narratives can be circumvented, and in so doing set the stage for work about contemporary shows in which PNG is shown as being remote and timeless.

    But as far as sugar goes there is a good article:

    Warner, John N. 1962. Sugar Cane: An Indigenous Papuan Cultigen. Ethnology 1(4):405-411

    which discusses the original domestication of sugar in New Guinea (something that Brandes and his team helped to first postulate through their botanical discoveries and which has been verified through DNA testing – the reference to this most recent piece alludes me). Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) was domesticated some 5,000 years ago before it was traded into Asia and then to the Middle East, Europe and with Christopher Columbus to the Americas. The anthropologist Sydney Mintz wrote an incredible book about the more contemporary aspects of this trade, which involved slaves from Africa, rum, sugarcane, tea and England, etc. The book – Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking – is a wonderful read and a must for anyone interested in this topic which entangles places, people, desires and value.

    I would be happy to share what I know….it is so rare that anything comes up about one’s research that I thought I had to chime in.

  5. Hi folks,

    Just a note to everybody who is interested in this post, Joshua Bell of the Smithsonian Institution is more than happy to write a more in depth article on the 1928 Sugar Cane Expedition to PNG and the effects that PNG sugar had on the US sugar industry and consequently, the global sugar trade.

    At the moment Joshua is quite busy with other research concerning the Expedition, so I’ve asked him to write an article when he does find the time to do so!

    I will keep you posted with the developments.


  6. Hi folks,

    I am pleased to see that my article was helpful, sensationalism notwithstanding!! Personally, I have very little knowledge about PNG, but I love looking through old National Geographics and summarizing whatever I find there. Now I’m bragging to my friends here in Texas that someone at the Smithsonian noticed my work! LOL.

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