Although the Sepik District became increasingly important as a source of labour – with a corresponding increase in the activities of labour recruiters in uncontrolled areas – no steps were taken before 1918 to extend government control. In that year two German labour recruiters were killed by villagers inland from Aitape and although the actions of the recruiters appear to have been the cause of the attack the newly appointed administrator of New Guinea, Brigadier-General G.J. Johnston, approved a punitive expedition in which villages were burnt down. Similar incidents occurred along the Sepik River. The district officer at Aitape, Captain J.H. Olifent, recommended a ‘show of force’ and in 1919 Johnston organized a patrol upriver, led by Olifent and including more than a dozen military personnel and seventy-five native police with a three-pounder and two machine guns. Although this patrol was not intended as a punitive expedition, after some inquiries Olifent decided that the villages of Jambon, Avatip and Malu had been aggressors in inter-village fighting and staged a ‘show of force’: at Jambon the villagers were driven out and the village shelled; houses – including haus tambaran – were burnt down and over one hundred villagers were put to forced labour. Shortly after this, in apparent retaliation, men from these villages attacked Marienberg mission station, killing nine ‘mission natives’, and later raided Angoram, killing twenty-nine villagers.
The last ‘punitive expedition’ in the Sepik was conducted in 1921. A later patrol, occasioned by reports of inter-village fighting along the Middle Sepik (including stories in the Australian press, attributed to the wife of a Madang planter, that scores of headless bodies were floating down the river) resulted in the establishment of a new station at Ambunti in 1924. Subsequently, several ‘headhunters’ were subjected to public hangings in Middle Sepik villages. The district officer at Ambunti was G.W.L. ‘Kassa’ Townsend, whose autobiographical account, District Officer (1968), gives a good picture of Australian administration in the Sepik between the wars. It includes a description of a singsing at Ambunti which brought together groups of ‘Big Sepiks’ and some of their traditional enemies.
By the 1930s most of the villages along the Sepik River, up to around the confluence with the May River, and part of the country between the river and the coast appear to have been under some degree of government control but in 1942 the Sepik was still very much a frontier area.
Within this pre-World-War-II landscape, however, several outside influences besides the administration had begun to impact on village societies.
The Society of the Divine Word (SVD) began mission work in the Sepik in 1896 with headquarters on Tumleo Island. In 1908 a station was established at Boiken, on the north coast, and fifteen years later mission stations were established at Marienberg, downriver from Angoram, and at Murik. The mission trained local catechists, who helped spread the word through the Sepik, and was also involved in plantations, sawmilling and later the marketing of artefacts. For the most part the SVD mission was at least tolerant of local cultures, though in a few instances cultural materials were destroyed (and some found their way to the SVD’s Anthropos Institute museum at Sankt Augustin).
After the early ethnographic work undertaken during the German administration, there was a lull after 1914, but government anthropologist Ernest Chinnery made a short visit to the Sepik in 1925, and from the early 1930s the cultures of various Sepik groups were studied by anthropologists including Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, Gregory Bateson, Ian Hogbin and Phyllis Kaberry. (From the 1960s it was also subjected to intensive study by scholars from the University of Basel and the Basel Museum für Völkerkunde, as well as a number of other anthropologists.) The region was also visited by Australia’s chief forestry officer, Charles Lane-Poole, in 1922, and by a US Department of Agriculture expedition seeking new sugar cane cultivars six years later. Orchid hunters discovered New Guinea, and Dendrobium lasianthera, better known as the Sepik Blue orchid, was first described in 1932 by a ‘Mr J.J. Smith of New Guinea’. The first ‘tourists’ began to arrive: J.K. McCarthy records that in the 1930s ‘undesirable types of Europeans came from Madang and the Morobe goldfields with the sole intention of visiting the grass country for the women’. As early as the 1920s there also appears to have been a market in ‘native curios’ from the Sepik (see photo below) and Melanesian art was providing inspiration for European artists like Emile Nolde, who had visited New Guinea in 1913-14, and Max Ernst.
In the last days of the German colonial period there had been optimism about the mineral prospects of the Sepik, specifically oil and gold. In the 1920s and 1930s several geological surveys had been carried out, unsuccessfully, by oil companies and in the late 1920s several prospectors, including George and Fred Eichhorn, were looking for gold along the Sepik, Keram, Yuat and Maramuni rivers. Then in 1936 Ray Parer and Dick Glasson found gold in the Screw River near Maprik, triggering a mini gold rush. (Local miners still extract small amounts of gold from the rivers around Maprik). There were never more than about fifty Europeans miners in the area but the discovery of gold helped open up an area of dense population which in 1936 had still been little contacted. The interest of Parer, a pilot, also led to the construction of the first air strips in the Sepik and the beginnings of commercial aviation in the district.
From the mid 1920s the Sepik consolidated its position as the primary source of indentured labour (the number of recruits rising from 130 in 1924 to 627 in 1927, 1232 in 1928 and 2610 in 1930), a position it maintained until the opening up of the highlands after the Second World War. Most of the early recruits went as plantation labourers to East New Britain and New Ireland, though from the early 1930s a large proportion went to the Morobe goldfields. Labour recruiters were an important force in the opening up of the Sepik hinterland. Others joined the administration, mostly as police or labourers. Those who returned to the village brought with them new skills and new world views and in the following years played an important part in the irreversible process of social and political change which the colonial presence had initiated.
The Second World War itself had an even greater impact in the Sepik. When the Japanese invaded New Guinea in 1942, large numbers of Sepik labourers were left to their own devices in New Britain, New Ireland and Madang, as white planters and traders retreated. Some made epic journeys back to their villages; others stayed to fight with the Allies or serve as coastwatchers or labourers. Subsequently East and West Sepik became major bases for the Japanese military (with around 100,000 troops) and areas of heavy fighting.
The Second World War itself had an even greater impact in the Sepik. When the Japanese invaded New Guinea in 1942, large numbers of Sepik labourers were left to their own devices in New Britain, New Ireland and Madang, as white planters and traders retreated. Some made epic journeys back to their villages; others stayed to fight with the Allies or serve as coast watchers or labourers. Subsequently East and West Sepik became major bases for the Japanese military (with around 100,000 troops) and areas of heavy fighting.
At the outbreak of war, plans had been made for the likely evacuation of the fifty or so Europeans in settlements and outstations in the Sepik. In Angoram, however, where a group of miners and others had gathered, the resident ADO refused to evacuate and he and his police fired on a party, led by ADO Jim Taylor, which came to relieve him. Taylor was wounded and the party withdrew to Marienberg. Returning two days later they found the ADO dead (he had apparently shot himself) and the police gone. Some of the police had taken weapons and gone bush, where they proceeded to raid villages and shoot any Europeans they found. At Timbunke a young Australian patrol officer was shot and on the Krosmeri River three miners were killed. (The grandson of one of these miners, Bill Eichhorn, later became the parliamentary member for Angoram.) Most of the SVD mission staff remained at their stations but few survived the war.
Wewak became a major centre of Japanese operations during the war, and Japanese military administration extended to many coastal and inland villages. Among the young Sepiks who attended Japanese schools was Michael Somare, who in time became Papua New Guinea’s first prime minister. Some Sepiks worked as labourers for the Japanese; others – especially among those who earlier had worked for Europeans on plantations, government stations, mining claims or missions – joined the guerrilla forces which harassed the Japanese in the Sepik. In at least one instance (the so-called ‘Timbunke massacre’) villagers used the conflict to settle old scores with traditional rivals. Early postwar patrol reports suggest that the impact of the war on village populations and livelihood in much of the Sepik was severe.
After the war many who had been involved in the conflict returned to their villages with ambitious plans for radical social change. There emerged a mass movement across much of Sepik districts, led by pre-war policemen such as Pita Simogun and Yauiga, which set out to achieve a fundamental social and economic transformation of village life through the provision of schools, the extension of roads, the promotion of cash crops and the establishment of bisnis. But though East Sepik was for a while a major producer of cacao and a significant producer of coffee (and in the early 2000s enjoyed a brief vanilla boom) the ‘undreamt of prospects’ seen by early Germans expeditions have never materialized. An Asian Development Bank supported East Sepik Rural Development Project launched in 1976 also failed to achieve its promise: a sub-project to produce commercial quantities of tilapia collapsed when the aquatic weed Salvinia molesta choked up the large parts of the Middle Sepik and its tributaries, and a plan to resettle people from heavily populated villages at Gavien, near Angoram largely failed because many of those resettled were not agriculturalists and a planned rubber project was hit by severe drought.
For a while in the 1960s and 1970s the artefact industry was an important source of cash income for some villages on the river and for villages north and south of the Sepik Highway, with expatriate dealers like Tom Slimmon, Mark Lissauer, John Pasquarelli, Wayne Heathcote, Sava Maksic, Ron Perry, Maurice Young and Barry Hoare buying and selling. Some of them have written their own stories – to which several people here could add (or subtract!). But this bisnis, too, went into decline from around the 1990s. (See photo below). In the 1970s there were plans to establish a Sepik museum in Wewak; Patricia and I, amongst others, collected some pieces for the proposed museum, but it never materialized and the pieces that had been collected disappeared. A cultural centre was established at Maprik, under the guidance of Chris Boylan, but that too proved to be short-lived. In 2007, during a hotly contested national election, I drove down the ‘Sepik Highway’, along which magnificent haus tambaran once towered over the Abelam villages. There was not a haus tambaran to be seen. I asked one of my Sepik colleagues what had happened; ‘Nau mipela gat lotu’ [‘We are Christians now’], he replied.
Things change, sometimes for the better but maybe not always. That is history. But an exhibition such as this serves as a reminder of the some of the rich cultural traditions of the Sepik, and of the role that collectors, museums and art galleries play – sometimes controversially – in preserving material cultures.