Recently, I have been drawn back into reading academic research on New Guinea, particularly some of the work done by Chilla Bulbeck.
I have felt it necessary to reply to her papers - in Reflections 1 and now in this short article Empire? which is a response to another one of her papers.2
Some academics and writers decreed that the British Empire was evil. There had always been questions and questionings amongst the best of the colonialists but this determination to denigrate all of Empire reached maturity in the case of New Guinea - I talk only about New Guinea - in the 1960s, To denigrate all of Empire, these professionals had to construct an edifice of rooms or tenets based almost totally on false foundations, false assumptions.
I do not know all the rooms or tenets within this building. However, the main one it seems was that all white people were wicked and all the native peoples abused. Nothing good was done in the name of the British Empire.
I gather now that another room in this building was labelled sexist. Apparently, if an academic was studying women as distinct from men, as well as colonial history, the white man of the colonies was not only a wicked white man, he was also a wicked white man. The white women were as downtrodden as the native peoples. Chilla Bulbeck has made statements and assumptions based on this theory3. Now after further research she has discovered all is not quite as she was led to think it was.4 Cracks have appeared in that building constructed on such false foundations.
This is where I come in. I have books of poetry in all the main Australian and British libraries. The first ones were placed there in 1973. These books include important poems on New Guinea. They are under Anne (therefore obviously a woman) McCosker and classified under New Guinea - where I was born. These books were even printed in New Guinea.5
Why do Chilla Bulbeck and others engaged in colonial research, as well as in women's studies, appear not to have discovered my existence if they carried out research in these libraries? Would it not have been a true voyage of discovery for them to have read this poetry and contacted me? If they had, they would then have found out that I started research on a book, Masked Eden, in 1971. This book contains a great deal of original material, much of it about colonial women. These were women of one or even two generations earlier than those women whom she and her colleagues are discussing in their material. Since early 1979 I have been trying to have this book published. Academics, publishers and writers have been aware of this,
Am I, a poet, born in Rabaul, the then capital of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea, with New Guinea dominating my youth, of complete irrelevance to those now studying the women of New Guinea?
If she and others had carried out this basic research they might not now be in the false position they are in, thinking they are breaking new ground on the subject of women in the Empire. They are not. They are still within that crazed, ramshackle building constructed by their peers a couple of academic generations ago. They prise a few bricks off a make-believe structure that should not have arisen in the first place.
The earth of Empire, over which this monstrosity has been constructed, still waits quiet and fertile beneath their confused feet. Will they take up the challenge and feel its vibrations?
(See also Empire and Commonwealth)
- Anne McCosker, Reflections on Staying in Line or Getting out of Place. Unpublished article written January 1992 - see pp. 9-14 of this publication.
- Chilla Bulbeck, New Histories of the Memsahib and Missus: The Case of Papua New Guinea. Journal of Woman's History Vol.3 No.2 (Fall) 1991.
I do not intend going into detailed discussion as regards this paper. I will, however, answer one statement Bulbeck makes, as she opens her paper with it - "The consensus among the women was that they could see long before the men it was time to go." She continues that "the women's reactions were quite distinct from those of the men." p.80.
I was in New Guinea in 1971 and 1974. The few Old Timers left in the Territory - men and women - were well aware of the true situation and were reacting to the political events in a similar manner. Those who intended leaving - some for various reasons did not - were settling their affairs as quickly as possible,
Stan McCosker had seen from 1945 onwards that changes would happen. (Letters in author's possession. Personal knowledge).
John Gilmore, another pre-Second War resident of New Guinea, troubled by the situation, had left the Islands in the mid -1960s. (Personal knowledge).
Both these men and others like them, who had spent their adult lives in New Guinea, were horrified and angered by the determination of those in power - often people with little or no practical experience of the country - to push through independence as quickly as possible. They did not think it in the best long-term interests of the New Guineans. Events in New Guinea since independence have proved them partially correct. Perhaps the future will prove them totally correct.
See Districts of Papua and New Guinea, Dept of Information, Port Moresby 1969, pp. 4-12 for a short summary of the actions, political and economic, that were being undertaken by the PNG Administration from the 1950s "with the aim of hastening the attainment of self-government by the people of Papua & New Guinea"
PNG was one of the last colonies of the British Empire to be granted independence. It must have been a very stupid man, indeed, who was not aware either of the push by his own Administration for indigenous independence or the granting of independence to other colonies.
- Anne McCosker, Reflections on Staying in Line or Getting out of Place.
- Chilla Bulbeck, New Histories of the Memsahib and Missus, inter alia p.86.
- Anne McCosker, Sea Watch, Camp-Fires, Potter's Clay, Matala Publishing Company, 1972-3.