Sugar Cane Expedition to PNG – 1928
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.