As part of my research on cultural changes in Auhelawa, a society on the south coast of Normanby Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG), I’ve read through many of the reports written by the young Australian men who worked as officers of the colonial government. You can tell as you read them how inexperienced and naive many of these men were. Some of them were probably not much older than my students. Nonetheless, they were given the responsibility of not only enforcing the administration’s regulations on “natives,” but also explaining it to the people to whom it applied. In many areas, patrol officers and their parties of armed constables were the only contact people had with the colonial state, and may have only encountered a formal patrol once a year. At each stop on the patrol, the officer would act as a magistrate, law enforcement officer, service provider, and a kind of tutor of this new government.

Their telegraphically-written logs of each day’s activity on the journey offer a colorful if sketchy picture of the meeting between local residents and the mobile city hall of their colonial state. For example, in a 1914 report, a patrol officer named N. K. Bushell described his activities on an early patrol through Auhelawa, known then as the districts of Namoa, Kurada and Bwasiyaiyai. Walking by foot with a group of armed native constables, he spoke with people in each village. He took two people into custody who had been accused of adultery. He then writes in an entry of May 14:

I made enquiries for venereal disease, but found no cases. I explained to the people the Government’s wishes for a bigger birth-rate and had the printed leaflets distributed. (Bushell 1914)

He goes on to describe that he ordered that all of the “old houses” be pulled down and burnt by his officers. He makes a positive comment about the apparent health of the people, and notes that local people told him that the coming yam harvest was expected to be a big one. He notes that the water supply in this area is excellent because of its many “fine, flowing creeks” (ibid.). He also took two women into custody for treatment for venereal disease. Although it is unclear from his report, it appears that he and his officers made camp in Bwasiyaiyai and kept the venereal disease patients and the men charged with adultery over night in camp.

In the morning he held a court for resolving local disputes, treated the women and discharged the men. This early contact between the colonial state and people of Auhelawa, though perhaps excessive, is also representative in many ways. The police power of colonial administration was swift, quite intrusive, somewhat brutal and could appear capricious, but also very paternalistic and concerned with the wellbeing of the residents. Officers appeared suddenly. Indeed, according to patrol officers’ reports, from 1891 to 1941, patrols in this area occurred no more than once a year. When they arrived they intruded into practically every domain of people’s domestic existence, inquiring about marital problems, sexual activity and food supplies, and apparently giving the residents no choice but to comply with this sudden intrusion. When I lived in Auhelawa, people mentioned that some would flee to the bush whenever they heard that a patrol was coming. I can’t say I would have done any differently; in fact, it seems only rational.

Incidentally, the patrol reports have been preserved by the National Archives of PNG, and these have now also been digitized as part of a project led by Kathy Creely at the University of California, San Diego Libraries. You can find the Bushell report and others here.

Reference

Bushell, N. K. 1914. “Report of a Police Patrol of D’Entrecasteaux Group of Islands, March 11th to May 16th 1914.” Item 627. Files of Correspondence, Journals and Patrol Reports from Outstations of British New Guinea and Papua, 1890-1941 (CRS G91).