Sunday, January 22, 2012

First Contact - book

First Contact New Guinea’s Highlanders Encounter the Outside World, Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson (Penguin Books, 1987)

When I first acquired this book in 1987 I was working on a project so that I only read the first few chapters that had to do with that specific topic. I have only just now returned to it and found it even more fascinating than before. It is quite an unusual book in several ways.

Although Europeans and others had been in New Guinea from quite an early time, Germans, English, Dutch, Indonesians, and probably others, it was commonly believed until 1930 that the rugged mountain interior was uninhabited. In 1930 an Australian prospector, Michael Leahy, led a party into the Easternmost part of the Highlands and found, much to everyone’s surprise, that not only was there a series of fertile valleys, they were heavily populated, nearly a million people gardening and living where there were supposed to be none. Although Leahy was a prospector and lusted for gold, he also regarded himself as an explorer. He took thousands of photographs of the first contact with the various Highland peoples he encountered, and he also kept detailed diaries of his movements and experiences, thus providing a wealth of information about the incredible adventure of first contact with, as it was reported, “People living in the Stone Age,” and sometimes “The Land that Time Forgot.” The Highlanders were using stone axes and stone, bone, and wooden tools, but they were not truly living in the stone age; had they been they would have been able to protect themselves more adequately against the steel weapons, guns and axes, they suddenly encountered. What is all the more fascinating is that the authors were able to locate and interview many of the Highlanders who had experienced these shocking first encounters, providing a unique perspective virtually unprecedented in such histories, as well as incredible interpretations of just who these White people were, where they must have come from, and why they were there.

Although they were shamelessly exploited in many ways for years (and even now in some ways), they were extremely fortunate to have escaped the real horrors of colonialism that had occurred so widely in the rest of the world. By the 1930’s Australia was mandated to care for them and try to help them eventually become more “civilized.” This did not prevent them from exploiting their cheap labor, indenturing them for work on the coastal plantations and other areas. Although there was talk of maintaining the Highlands, with the fertile soil and marvelous climate as another Kenya, to be reserved for Whites, this movement was quickly stopped after only a relatively small amount of land had been alienated for coffee plantations. As Australia itself had a small population to develop their continent they were slow in providing aid to the New Guineans, but eventually government schools were constructed (there had been a few mission schools that mostly sought to make converts), some of the Highlanders began to learn trades and read and write, and finally in 1975 New Guinea achieved independence (although they were not really ready for it).

First Contact, in addition to being such an unusual account of an incredible discovery, follows Michael Leahy, his brothers, and others as they moved across the high valleys in search of gold, which they found, but not in the large quantities they had dreamed about. As you might surmise, they did not always find peaceful natives and they were sometimes forced to resort to killing. In his diaries Leahy confesses to some 31 or more, but it is obvious there were many more (one estimate put the number of native deaths before pacification at probably one thousand). All of these killings were technically against the law, but as there was only one Patrol Officer for the entire area, he supported Leahy on the grounds of self-defense. And although the administration attempted to keep prospectors and others from entering the as yet unpacified highlands, the lure of gold was too strong and the government was too weak to prevent them from doing so.

The Highlanders certainly benefitted from their late discovery by Europeans, but the tale is still one of the typical colonial pattern, the natives regarded as totally inferior, the arrogance of Europeans who felt no qualms whatsoever about invading their territory and removing their gold and, basically whatever else they wanted, having casual sexual relations with their women when it pleased them to do so. Although Michael Leahy took thousands of photographs of their rituals, and hired hundreds of native workers, he had no interest in their culture or beliefs, and always maintained the proper distance between “mastas” and “boys.” His brother Dan eventually settled in the Highlands, had two native wives and several children, but Michael, true to the colonial spirit to the end, opposed their independence and refused even to acknowledge the half caste sons he had fathered, even when face to face with them, afraid of what his Australian wife and others might think of him.

The book is about a dynamic personality (who was a true man of his time), a fantastic discovery, a marvelous adventure, one of the last examples of (a rather benign) colonialism, and the discovery by isolated, ignorant, but intelligent people, of the outside world. It is well worth reading.

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