Context: put some new strings on my old Eko and then got a blister I played it so much!
They don’t write books like this anymore. You know when you open a book and you fall back into a bygone era and can’t find your way out again? That’s what happens when you open the pages of Monckton’s memoirs. And as the era he’s writing about has long since past, for better and worse, you discover things about the world that you never knew existed. I found this two-volume set in a local Oxfam shop for under £5. As we’re due to emigrate to Papua New Guinea this very summer, it was a very timely find.
Monckton was a New Zealander who ends up in New Guinea as a young, inexperienced risk-taking member of the ruling elite. He quickly wins favour with William MacGregor, then Lieutenant-Governor, and arguably the greatest adminstrator New Guinea has ever seen. This favour stems from the fact that Monckton will attempt pretty much anything he’s set, and some more besides.
The book is extremely readable, and I found it hard to put down. I read the second volume in almost one sitting. Throughout Monckton is quite free with his opinions on everything he sees and everyone he meets. What I appreciated was that both native and colonial are depicted pretty much as they were: a mixed bag with heroes and losers on both sides. There seems to be less of the prejudice that you usually come to expect from colonial writing of this era and that’s refreshing.
Occasionally though, you get something like this:
“I have frequently heard the argument used in Australia, that the white man is a good a worker as the native anywhere, and under any conditions. I do not agree with this.”
Oh good, you think, a bit of perspective. Then he says,
“but accepting it as true, the fact remains that, in the tropics, the white woman is not capable of hard work and should not be asked to do it.”
My wife was chuffed to hear this! Less delightful is his assertion that Kipling’s epithet of
“a native as “half devil and half child” is a very true one.”
But despite these atrocities, the majority of the book is surprisingly balanced for its time. Take this example of the treatment he doles out to one of his new (white) junior officers who calls the locals “niggers”:
“Remember this: the term nigger, as applied to a native of this country, is strictly forbidden; it is an objectionable term of contempt, and especially so when applied to men wearning the King’s uniform.”
I didn’t know people felt this way at the turn of the last century.
I was particularly struck by the mandate of the colonial powers. The country truly was rife with the kind of violent behaviour that makes your hair stand on end and which the present government are still fighting. People were eaten on a regular basis. Tribes thought nothing of wiping each other out on the slightest provocation. Whole ways of life (e.g. a tribe who lived over water entirely and are now long gone) were being decimated by disease and violence. The mandate was simple:
“a strange tribe of raw savages could frequently be brought into a state of law and order, without their perceiving the real change that was being effected, and without undue disturbance of the tribal or communal life.”
It’s this last bit that struck me. Most of the book details Monckton’s involvement in exactly this kind of work. It’s hard to see it as either black and white, knowing some of the complexities involved. But having read the two volumes, I certainly have a new perspective on it.
One thing’s for sure, this is a book absolutely crammed full of fascinating anecdotes. Like, for example, the fishing rats. He spends the night on a tiny island that is mostly sand and one small clump of vegetation. He’s woken up by rats crawling all over him so he heads off to sleep in his ship. In the morning he’s having his pre-breakfast pipe and he’s thinking, “How on earth do rats survive on this island? There’s nothing to eat.” Then he sees a group of rats come out of the clump of undergrowth, sit on some rocks in the shallows and trail their tails in the surf. With a yelp, one rockets off the rock and onto the beach. Hanging off its tail is a crab which it swiftly devours. Then it goes back to get another one. Monckton’s left scrathing his head in bewilderment.
There’s a episode with a pig that cracked me up. He’s responsible for ensuring villages under his watch keep their roads clean. One village doesn’t and, after repeated warnings, he threatens to shoot their pigs. They still don’t bother. So, he says he’s going to kill their biggest pig and then give them a week to do the task before he returns to kill the rest. His police produce a huge beast and the villagers nonchalantly say that he can kill it if he wants. He’s incensed at their cheek and shoots it dead on the spot. He’s not a mile from the village when a fat little Belgian monk runs up to him breathless demanding to know why on earth the Resident Magistrate has shot the Bishop’s prize pig!
And in the second volume, there’s a detailed account of the tragedy of the killing of missionary James Chalmers and, most interesting, what happened in the aftermath. Although I knew Chalmers’ story, I had no idea of what took place in the administration as a result of his death. It was tragic from beginning to end and would make a fantastic film. I may just write the screenplay one day.
Curiously, in the foreword, he says,
“I have abstained from putting into the mouths of natives the ridiculous jargon or “pidgin English” in which they are popularly supposed to converse.”
This made me laugh. That “ridiculous jargon” is now one of the three official languages of Papua New Guinea and will be my working lingua franca for the next couple of years. Anyway, as I leave, I’ll take Monckton’s advice to heart:
“when you, sir, have completed your term of service here, you will think, as I do, that the whole country is a weird compound of comic opera and tragedy, with a very narrow margin between them.”
I think I already do!
In the year 1895 I found myself at Coooktonw in Queensland, aged 23, accompanied by a fellow adventurer, F.H.Sylvester, and armed with £100, and outfit particularly unsuited to the tropics, and a letter of introduction from the then Governor of New Zealand, the Earl of Glasgow, to the Lieutenant-Governor of British New Guinea, Sir William MacGregor.
Perhaps if this book proves of interest to people and all goes well, I may write an account of these expeditions at a later date.