By PHIL FITZPATRICK
PNG Attitude readers will remember the vigorous debate that occurred when an extract from an early draft of this book related to extra-judicial killings carried out by the Australian administration during the exploratory and pacification years in colonial Chimbu was published.
So, before proceeding any further, it should be pointed out that this only makes up a small part of what is a more comprehensive and expansionary account of the history of the province contained in the book.
It should also be noted in relation to this part of the book that many of the views and opinions garnished during the debate that followed have been taken into account by the author and explored in detail in this final version.
This does not detract from his original thesis nor does it diminish his contention that the colonisation of the province had some of the hallmarks of invasion and that the Chimbu people had every right to feel affronted by the disruption of what they considered their perfectly serviceable way of life.
You can argue the inevitability of western expansionism and mollify it by arguing that the largely benign Australian administration was the least offensive colonial option on offer at the time but in the end it comes down to the replacement of one way of life by another order claiming a dubious superiority.
And this is the nub of the importance of this book because it presents a view from the opposite side of what has so far been accepted as established fact.
The account of colonisation presented in My Chimbu comes from the point of view of the colonised as opposed to the conventional view of the colonisers. As such it suggests that that view is not the end of the story and there is more to be written.
The impetus for the book began with the author listening to the stories and reminiscences his elders told in the hausman when he was a child. From there he developed a firm view that those stories needed to be recorded before they were lost.
Over subsequent years he did just that and assembled an impressive collection of primary data.
In his introduction he explains that: “The voices contained in my primary documents ought to be heard because these had remained silent for over 70 years”.
He adds that: “Without the durability of the written word, our generation and others to come will never authentically replicate the unique memories of these people.”
The book begins with a brief history of what the author calls taim bipo and progresses through to the arrival of the first “foreigners” into Chimbu in the 1930s and subsequent penetration, control and development of the province by the Australian administration.
From there the transition to self-government and independence as it affected Chimbu is covered. After that the post-independence period is described and assessed and, in a final chapter, some thoughts are offered about the possible future of the Chimbu people.
These latter chapters are no more remarkable in their detail than the earlier ones, given the parlous state of historical research in Papua New Guinea, and are probably as valuable as the memories of the elders because they too run the risk of being forgotten.
I certainly learned a lot I didn’t know, both about the history of Chimbu and Papua New Guinea in general.
What is also remarkable is that the author has collected this information with a minimum of resources. Chimbu is still a remote part of the world and access to the sort of primary data that is the bread and butter of any historian elsewhere is severely limited.
In Chimbu, as in the rest of Papua New Guinea, the convenience of dropping into the local or national archives just doesn’t exist.
The author duly acknowledges this problem and the effect it has had on the scholarship of his book by humbly accepting that deficiencies exist: “Generally names, events and dates will be missing, not adequately captured or wrongly placed in the scripts. I expect critics and disputes for which I take responsibility …” You don’t get too many writers offering that sort of caveat.
For all its possible faults the book is ground breaking in its scope because it provides not only the first comprehensive history of a Papua New Guinean province but also a blueprint for others to follow.
Hopefully this might now happen before the rest of Papua New Guinea’s history, especially that which is told from a local perspective, is lost.
It is also worth acknowledging the part of the Simbu Writer’s Association in the publication of the book. The association is one of the most positive aspects that came out of the literary experimentation that was the Crocodile Prize for Literature.
A large part of the success of the association is due to its chief editor and publisher Francis Nii. His dedication to the writers and literature of Chimbu is, I would offer, unparalleled.
This is a large and complex book and it is not possible to do it justice in a short review. It has to be read to be fully appreciated and I would urge Chimbus, as well as general readers, to do just that. I don’t think you will be disappointed.
Finally, I would also like to note that with this book Mathias Kin has emerged as a talented and accomplished writer. Hopefully we will hear more from him in the future.
My Chimbu: a short history of Chimbu in the highlands of PNG by Mathias Kin, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018, 418 pages, ISBN: 978-1729711309. Available from Amazon, US$80 plus postage.
- Phil Fitzpatrick is a freelance writer.