Staying in Line or Getting out of Place: The Experiences of Expatriate Women in Papua New Guinea 1920-1960 by Chilla Bulbeck
These Reflections are concerned only with the area known from 1884 to 1921 as German New Guinea and, from 1921 to 1945, as the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. In 1949, after provisional administration by Australia, it was formally amalgamated with Papua to become the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. Today it is known as Papua New Guinea. In this article I shall call it New Guinea.
I do not think a precise history of the area can be achieved if this New Guinea and Papua are studied as if they have always had one identity - as is often the case nowadays and is so handled by Chilla Bulbeck in her working paper. Indeed, it would be more correct at times to distinguish mainland New Guinea from island New Guinea - the Bismarck Archipelago,
New Guinea and Papua had different European administrations for sixty-one years, and the inhabitants, certainly of New Guinea, considered the other a foreign country.1
Bulbeck's statements regarding the relationships between the black and white peoples of New Guinea are too simplistic, too rigid.2
"A few days after Stan arrived, he was wandering along the dirty track that was now Mango Avenue, sadly looking at the gaps that had once been filled with shops and offices. He glimpsed the outline of a familiar figure coming towards him. He quickened his pace. The other man quickened his. Stan and Rombin met.
Stan looked into his eyes and knew he was no traitor. 'It is you, my brother', he said quietly. They solemnly shook hands."3
As glimpsed in the above passage, in which black and white meet again after the years of war, there was a great variety of relationships between the various races and even within these individual relationships, as in any relationship, there was a continual movement. A black servant might become a white man's mate, a woman kanaka the beloved nanny of a white child. In the bush, the white man would acknowledge the superior bushcraft of his black 'companion and the black man accept the white man's less fearful approach to the unseen forces.4
The New Guinea population was made up of individuals. One race made the laws according to its own kind, which could lead to injustice for those of other races but, on a one-to-one basis, the roles of the various races depended on the character of each individual.5
The question of individuality was also the most important factor in deciding the role of the expatriate women - and black women - in New Guinea. Bulbeck quotes secondary sources about other parts of the British Empire - well before the time scale of her own study -suggesting women were not only late arrivals in the colonies but were given, from the beginning, a specific role and told what employment they could do.
I do not know whether these examples give a true picture for other parts of the Empire. They certainly are not correct for New Guinea.
Emma Coe, married first to James Forsayth and then common law wife of Tom Farrell and, later, wife of Paul Kolbe - "Queen Emma' - was a pioneer founder of the area around Kokopo which was the heart of the Bismarck Archipelago.6 She arrived in the Duke of York Islands, between New Britain and New Ireland, in 1878 with Tom Farrell.
"The fact that Emma's husband was thought to be still alive, and that Farrell had a wife living in Australia, did not concern the eleven white residents of the area. Two of their number had just been killed and eaten so they were glad to see newcomers."7
This woman - trader, planter, ship-owner, business woman - dominated the lives of everyone, lovers and husbands, female and male relations, friends, enemies and travellers who came in contact with her. She ruled her vast empire from Ralum near Kokopo and at her home, Gunantambu, she entertained on a lavish scale.
Phoebe Parkinson, one of Emma's sisters, was perhaps an even more remarkable woman than Emma. Both women had many relations and Coe women lived and worked all over the Bismarck Archipelago.
In 1909 Emma Kolbe sold - for a fortune - all her interests to Hamburghische Sudsee Aktien Gesellschaft, known as HASAG.
Queen Emma neither knew nor cared if she had a 'proper place'.8 Neither did the majority of European women living in New Guinea from 1920. There was 'Tiger Lil' who drove around Rabaul in a car called the 'silver bullet' and who had a string of lovers, one being the young Errol Flynn. There was Marjorie McCosker who, before her marriage, was a qualified accountant and teacher. After she settled in New Guinea, she continued her accountancy career and grew to be a well-loved white missus.
One woman was licensee of a Rabaul hotel, another helped her husband in medical research. The chemist shop, with delightful tea-house attached, was run by a husband-and-wife team. Lulu Miller went recruiting native labour, Doris Booth worked on the gold fields. Women owned and managed plantations which sometimes consisted of vast tracts of land, including whole island groups. They worked as teachers and secretaries. There were, of course, nurses and missionary sisters. Women worked at just about anything and everything.9
There were single women, separated and divorced women, faithful wives and unfaithful wives. There were women who were good with servants and the New Guinea “natives” in general and women who were unable to handle them well or justly. Some women and their children became fluent speakers of Pidgin English and even some local tribal dialects; others had almost no understanding of even basic Pidgin. Single women travelled freely and frequently between Australia and New Guinea. Married women often travelled alone with their children between the two countries. White women drove on their own between places such as Rabaul and Kokopo and the surrounding plantations. Black servants might risk their own lives to ensure the safety of a white missus even when there was no white man accompanying them.10
There were. Of course, subtle social distinctions - as there always have been in all ages throughout the world - between the women, but these were made as much by the women themselves as by any men. These could be, and were, disregarded by individual women in individual cases. Most of these women were pioneers - women often of above-average courage, humour and love. There was more scope for their gifts in raw countries such as New Guinea than even in early twentieth century Australia.
Bulbeck seems to accept that the black servants were treated according to the social class of the white women" yet she does not follow this evidence to its logical conclusion. For surely once this idea has been accepted, one must continually distinguish between not only social classes but characters. One should also distinguish between town, plantation and bush.12
Why does Bulbeck not pursue the extremely important statement, "Servants had care of small children, a relationship that required trust not fear."13
Bulbeck states on the subject of house servants, "This job almost always involved servants who were usually men. Why men were recruited to perform tasks normally undertaken by women has puzzled later commentators.'"4
The various commentators who were puzzled by this supposed situation should not have been. Even to this day in wealthy households throughout the world, there are male butlers, footmen, chefs, chauffeurs, gardeners and handymen.
However, at Matala Plantation in March 1941, photos were taken of the family and house servants. One photo shows all the females - black and white - of the family household. There was the Missus, her aunt, two children and five New Guineans. Four of these 'maries' (women) were house maries while the other was the elder child's playmate.15 It was not uncommon for maries to work in white households besides that of Matala Plantation, as did 'monkeys', young male New Guineans16. And I presume Molly [sic] Parer, as quoted by Bulbeck, was talking about black girls when she said 'girls'.17
Any attempt to analyse the relationships between white women and black men, as Bulbeck does, will lead to confusion and tomfoolery.18 Again it depends on the character of the individuals involved- This sensitive area of human relations is so obviously open to gossip, scandal, exaggeration and 'leg pulling' - something the New Guinea Europeans loved.
The contemporary English TV comedy programme, "You Rang M'Lord", puts such relationships with servants in proportion. Women are women and servants are servants the world over. A few women tantalise their male servants, whatever their colour; many do not. To outsiders, the most peculiar relationships exist between master/mistress and servants of all races with no sexual intimacy involved.
There were very few liaisons between white women and New Guinea men and even fewer marriages- Even the Coe women - with Samoan blood - married white men. S. W. Reed concluded that the New Guinea women were not attractive to European men.19 This perhaps applies to the converse situation.
Bulbeck finished her working paper with the sentence, "They (the women) were thus in a position to be more reflective concerning the impact of 'the white man's burden', if only because they were less involved in carrying it."20
"Send forth the best ye breed", Kipling's poem continued21 and some of the best of women, as well as men, did respond to the challenge. These women believed, with the same passion and assurance as the men, that they had a duty to take the light of Christ into the darkness of such countries as New Guinea.
Their burden was as great as, if not more so, than that of the men. A married woman had to endure either the loneliness of separation from her husband or the tigering climate of New Guinea. If she stayed with her husband and wanted children, she could find it an almost impossible task even to conceive because of the diseases the climate brought.22 If pregnant, she had to fight the alien physical and spiritual forces surrounding her and the unborn child. Perhaps that baby might even be born on the road-side as the parents tried to reach the hospital from an outlying plantation.23
It was the mother who bore the main burden of making sure her child had professional medical advice, if necessary, and the right food as an infant - not an easy task in isolated areas or even, at times, in the towns.24 The child's education fell on her shoulders. Away from the few towns, she would have to organise and supervise correspondence lessons. The necessity of separation from either her child or her husband, when the child's educational needs demanded schooling in Australia, could place an almost intolerable burden on her.25
The women, married or single - like women everywhere, no matter their pioneering
instincts - loved to talk and show their latest home possessions, whether it be
curtains, knick-knacks or linoleum. And women, much more than men, like to
dress up, go out, be seen. What chance did women living on isolated plantations
or mission stations have to do all these things?26
How many women were there who mourned the loss of some one they loved - husband, lover, son, brother - either through disease, injury or war, as a result of his time in an outpost of the Empire? Women who had perhaps never even been to a colony but who nevertheless carried the full burden of Empire - carried sometimes through a lifetime of loneliness and poverty.27
It was the white women who, perhaps even more than the white men, understood the "fluttered folk and wild"2", Kipling's black peoples, and the vulnerable position in which this put the often more emotionally mature black women. It was to these black women that the Christian white women wished to give their own great gift - the knowledge that they were equal to men, a complementary equality so natural that it needed no discussion.
A partnership of European husband and wife could achieve much. By 1941 at Matala Plantation on New Britain, the children had a beloved black nanny and the elder a black playmate who took correspondence lessons with her. Married couples lived on the plantation, the husbands working as labourers. The black women were as respected as the white women, certainly by the Europeans. Much more remained to be done but the foundations were well laid.29
However, first war, then the post-war clamour against colonialism, shattered the aspirations of the best, black and white, male and female. A different white man's burden has passed now to those who, from the late 1940s onwards, for a variety of reasons, determined to destroy all - including the good - that had been created by the 'best'.
It is the post-colonialists who have constructed an unreal world, the rigid lines from which no one - man or woman, black or white - gets out of place.
- Letter in author's possession. Sir Herbert Murray, Lieutenant-Governor of Papua was, by 1940, against a union of the two territories thinking they had, by then, diverged too much. Gavin Souter, The Last Unknown, Angus and Robertson, 1963, p. 172.
- Chilla Bulbeck, Staying in Line or Getting out of Place: the Experiences of Expatriate Women in Papua New Guinea /920-1960, published by the Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, 1988, pp. 1-2.
- Anne McCosker, Masked Eden, an unpublished (in 1993) historically
accurate account of the colonial period of the Territory of New Guinea.
Completed in 1979. The two aspects of New Guinea life - the personal and
official - are woven into this book. The lives of real people are portrayed,
the biographical details being based on private letters, diaries, short stories,
articles and photographs in the author's possession. Authenticity has been
achieved from the many conversations the author had with Old Timers in Australia
and New Guinea, as well as from her own memories and experiences. Chapter 12.
(Masked Eden was published in 1998)
The words spoken by Stan McCosker in this extract were told to the author by Rombin in Rabaul in 1971.
"Dear my sister Robin" and "Dear Sister Robin Anne" - greetings in letters (1947 and 1948) from Rombin to Stan's daughter in Australia. Letters in author's possession.
Anne McCosker, 'Rombin', Potter's Clay, Matala Publishing Co. 1973, p. 13.
- Anne McCosker, Masked Eden; inter alia Chapters 12 and 13.
S. W. Reed, The Making of Modern New Guinea. American Philosophical Society.1943, pp. 231-2.
However, the friendship between Stan and Rombin (Note 3) lasted 28 years, broken only when Stan left New Guinea on the death of his wife.
- Ibid., p.216, Reed quotes R.Thurnwald: "European contact does not create the same conditions everywhere. Consequently we must distinguish the phenomena of contact and adaptation not only according to tribal conditions, but also in relation to the particular circumstances created by Europeans on a certain spot."
- There are many books, handbooks, articles and papers that mention
Queen Emma and her extended family.
This author had several talks with Lulu Miller, Queen Emma's great-niece. She also talked with Herbert Zander who had known Emma in his youth. The author knew well Walford King who was a German-speaking Government Auditor in New Guinea in the 1920s and 1930s. He knew many of Emma's relations and friends, including Phoebe Parkinson and Peter Hansen.
- R. W. Robson, Queen Emma, Pacific Publications, 1965, p. 10.
- Chilla Bulbeck, Staying in Line or Getting out of Place, p. 2.
- Anne McCosker, Masked Eden. Many women and their contribution to New Guinea are mentioned throughout the book. This information is also held in letters in the author's possession.
- Ibid., Chapter 6. Letter in author's possession.
- Chilla Bulbeck, Staying in Line or Getting out of Place, p. 12.
- S. W. Reed, The Making of Modem New Guinea, p. 251.
- Chilla Bulbeck, Staying in Line or Getting out of Place, p. 12.
- Ibid,. p.6.
- A photograph in the author's possession.
- Lilian Overall, A Woman's Impressions of German New Guinea,
John Lane, The Bodley Head. 1923, inter alia Chapter IX, p. 164.
R. W. Robson, Queen Emma, p. 198. (Note p. 181).
Anne McCosker, Masked Eden, many chapters.
Photographs in author's possession.
- Chilla Bulbeck, Staying in Line or Getting out of Place, p.l3.
- Ibid., pp. 7-8.
- S. W. Reed. The Making of Modern New Guinea, p. 249.
- Chilla Bulbeck, Staying in Line or Getting out of Place, p. 15.
Rudyard Kipling, 'White Man's Burden', A Choice
of Kipling's Verse,
T. S. Eliot. Faber and Faber, 1963, p. 136……
- Anne McCosker, Masked Eden. Chapter 4.
- Ibid., Chapter 8. Letter in author's possession.
- Ibid., Chapters 6 and 8. Letter in author's possession.
- Ibid.. Chapter 13.
- Ibid., Chapters 3 and 4.
- Ibid., Chapter 12.
- See Note 21.
Anne McCosker, Masked Eden, Chapter 9.
Letters and photographs in author's possession.