Critique of

 Voices from a Lost World 

by Jan Roberts

Millennium Books  1996.


The following article was originally sent to Una Voce (magazine of the then Retired Officers Association of Papua New Guinea  [ROAPNG] )  in  1996.

It was not published.

May I as a poet and historian ‘Beforer’, and a ROAPNG member, be allowed to speak on behalf of some of your members, their friends, and the children of Beforers’.

Jan Roberts in spite of having my work pointed out to her by the Librarian of one of Australia’s senior University libraries, chose not to mention any of my books in the Bibliography of her book Voices from a Lost World.  If she had bothered to contact me, some of the many mistakes in this book could have been rectified before publication

I take 7 points from this curiously misleading book.  My work refers, as always, mainly to the Bismarck Archipelago within the Mandated Territory of New Guinea,

  1. R.L.  Clark, M.L.A.  was the Chief Civilian Warden who surrendered the civilian population to the Japanese in Rabaul 23rd January 1942.  He had remained steadfast, while all around him those with authority to act, disappeared.  Roberts writes, ‘He, (Gordon Thomas) the Chief Warden, and Senior Government Officer H.E.  Robinson.  carried the white flag.  (p.275)
  2. Dick Forsyth was a successful public accountant, not a clerk’, (p.178,) A close friend of my fathers, and Nobby Clark, from 1925 - in New Guinea.  As Roberts says rightly, men went to New Guinea to avoid the Depression, what does her sentence ‘he (Forsyth) had a hard time during the Depression’ (p.  175) mean? Roberts interviewed both Mrs Gladys Forsyth and her daughter Beatrice.  How could these mistakes have been made?
  3. Lil Evensen after evacuation from Rabaul in January 1942, travelled to her home state, Western Australia, by train.  What then is the meaning of the words ‘Canberra station’.  (p.282) Has Canberra ever been on a main railway line?
  4. I cannot accept the following statement taken from Roberts book.  ‘A group of Rabaul ladies on the upstairs verandah were sitting on cane chairs and having drinks brought to them, and on reaching the stage of complete immobilisation, simply urinated through the cane chairs and sat there with the spreading puddles on the floor beneath them, It seemed an habitual rite’.  (p.  166.  )
    Roberts gives no precise reference for this statement that is, of course, by inference, such a slur on all the European residents of pre WWII Rabaul.  The Cosmopolition Hotel was used by families on a regular basis.  My great-aunt Nance Scott, recently retired as Matron of Townsville Hospital, a nursing sister throughout WWI in Egypt, India, the Western Front, stayed at times at this Hotel during the years that seem to be suggested.  It is preposterous to imagine that a) Nance Scott would not have found out about such behaviour and b) not brought it to a swift and decisive stop.
  5. What of that paragraph of Jan Roberts that contains the statement: the Rabaul women ‘enjoyed feeling secure within their boundaries and were pleased to know there was a strong, benevolent, Government Number One living above them on Namanula Hill’.  (p.  176)

    Marjorie McCosker in one of her letters recorded that the McNicolls had ‘got the wind up’ when their limousine was stuck in the mud near the Warangoi River.  The McNicolls had decided on an afternoon’s outing to see the Warangoi in flood.  It took nearly half the population of the Gazelle Peninsula to get them back to Rabaul.  And doubtless the whole Gazelle Peninsula shared in the amusement this caused.  Not much deference or sense of security from Namanula there.

    Marjorie McCosker was neither ‘in or out’ of Government House society as Roberts declares every woman was.  Surely this was not solely because of her many aristocratic and gentry links.
  6. The one mention of my work by Roberts is treated incorrectly.  It appears as if Roberts thinks there is some connection between Tiger Lil driving a car called the ‘silver bullet’ and being rich.  No such inference can be drawn from my words in Reflections.  In fact at the time referred to by me, Tiger Lil was living in Rabaul, or to be more precise Kokopo.  not‘down from the gold fields’.  (p.  170)
    (The part of the NOTE for this that refers to my work is wrong.  The book published was NEW GUINEA WAITS.  Reflections, was one article in this publication.)
  7. Roberts bemoans the fact - as have others engaged in recent studies of New Guinea - that ‘so few glimpses of Melanesian women and children of Papua New Guinea emerge from the interview and research material.  (p.  xviii) Why then do all these same people continue to ignore me and all my work on New Guinea?
    My elder sister and I had a New Guinean nanny who was the wife of the war hero, Rombin.  My sister’s childhood playmate of many years was the adopted daughter of our nanny.  I have much material on many aspects of these relationships.
    Is it not therefore extraordinary that those believed to be engaged in colonial New Guinea scholarship cannot even put my works in their Bibliographies? Jan Roberts says she wants to ‘recover as much social history as possible’
    (p. xvii).  Why then ignore the woman poet and historian who a quarter of a century ago began to collect material, particularly written material, of colonial New Guinea, thus building on her personal experience of that country.

© Anne McCosker 1996

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