Friday, 23 May 2008



A Life

He came back to his island home with his mother and sister at the end of World War Two . They were returning from wartime exile in Australia to Nuguria Atoll and the devastated wreck of a coconut plantation. His father, Lewis Carson was one of the Australian prisoners-of-war lost at sea when the Japanese ship Montevideo Maru was torpedoed by an American submarine while transporting them from Rabaul to Japan for use as forced laborers
Nuguria is one of the Polynesian outliers which ring Papua New Guinea. Its people are handsome, golden-skinned islanders; their original Polynesian heriditary characteristics have been modified by Micronesian and Melanesian genes contributed by arrivals from visiting canoes from Kapingamirangi Atoll to the north, from New Ireland to the west, and perhaps by visits from the ships of passing seafarers ranging from Admiral Zheng He's fleet on its voyage of exploration in 1421, to later ships carrying European explorers as they charted the legendary Pacific Ocean

Graeme Carson

The short-lived 19th century German presence in the South Pacific made Nuguria plantation an attractive prize after Germany's defeat in the First World War. The victorious Australians seized it with alacrity, unceremoniously ejected the former owners with little or no compensation, and sold it, along with hundreds of other similar assets, to their own returned veterans. One of these was Lewis Carson, father of Graeme.

Nuguria was Graeme Carson's fiefdom. He ran the atoll as a benign but absolute ruler, and totally dominated its inhabitants, as did his similarly placed counterpart, John Clunies-Ross on Cocos in the Indian Ocean. Force of character and an absolute belief in their right to rule was a characteristic of both men, and this was accepted by the islanders until influences from outside sewed the seeds of discontent. The Winds of Change have now made anything remotely resembling this state of affairs unthinkable and much ink has been spilt reviling the discriminatory attitude and the paternal mindset of those early times, but whether the total absence of aid, assistance or basic governance for Nuguria which now prevails is in an improvement is a legitimate question.
Like many of his contemporaries, Graeme Carson accepted responsibility for the health and welfare of every individual on his property, in his case, all 58 islands on the twin atolls which made up Nuguria. He was administrator, doctor, nurse, mechanical engineer, book-keeper, unofficial arbitrator in disputes over land, unofficial matchmaker between partners from different families, and an occasional pugilist when a dispute demanded strong action.. His small ship was used to transport patients to Rabaul for hospital treatment free of charge and he arranged and paid for places in the prestigious King's School in Sydney for several young Nugurians. In short; his word was law, and government regulations and decrees from distant Rabaul ran a bad second to on-the-spot decisions by the freehold owner of Nuguria.

Carson's family lived on Tekani Island about 3 miles from the airstrip in a house built by his father, and the Nugurians occupied the adjoining island of Busureia. As well as providing money in return for labour or locally harvested copra and trocas shell, Carson was the only source of medical treatment on the atoll and the only authority to turn to in disputes. The nearest government official was many days sail away. Communication was by tenuous HF radio link to Rabaul on New Britain using the radio in the plantation office surrounded more often than not by a group of attentive bystanders. The artificial boat harbour lay immediately in front of his house with retaining walls formed by stacked mushroom coral heads overlaid by clean white sand. This tiny harbor sheltered schools of small bait fish in addition to the dugout canoes used for transport in the lagoon. In the early 1960's, he used his own labour and materials to carve an airstrip out of the narrow island at the southeast end of the atoll: 2,500 feet long and surfaced with a thin grass cover over coral rubble, it allowed fast and easy access to outside medical aid together with much faster mail delivery. It also produced a stream of official visitors from government departments in Rabaul whose insistence on correctly completed paperwork was not always welcomed by the busy owner of the atoll !

Boat Harbour. Tekani Island

. Graeme Carson married his first wife, an Australian girl, who gave him a son, Timothy. His mother, who lived on Nuguria as an undisputed matriarch, clashed repeatedly with her, and the marriage ended in divorce. Carson remarried, this time to Tetau, daughter of an heriditary Nugurian clan leader. She bore him another six children. The redoubtable Eileen Carson co-existed in wary but resigned amity with Tetau, until the matriarch's death by drowning after a fall from the seawall during a violent northwest gale.
Political independence for Papua New Guinea in 1975 marked the start of a revolt by young islanders against what they now regarded as the exploitation of their homeland. The easy relationship between Carson and the islanders began to deteriorate into open hostility, often fueled by outsiders who now began to arrive on Nuguria as the invitees of islanders returning from school in New Britain and Bougainville.
He applied for citizenship of the newly independent Papua New Guinea, renouncing his Australian citizenship in the process. While it was never officially spelled out, Australian passport holders who tried to continue in business in Papua New Guinea soon discovered that it was nearly impossible to do so in the face of official harrasment by newly promoted government officials, determined to exert their newfound authority. One of the unforseen consequences of this change in nationality left his family divided into those born before he became a Papua New Guinean citizen and those born later. The former were able to get Australian passports and move freely between New Guinea and Australia: the latter, as citizens of PNG, were only able to visit Australia for brief periods on tourist visas. This did not allow them to enroll in Australian schools, or to obtain access to medical treatment and other benefits, which their older siblings were still able to do.

Canoe. Nuguria Lagoon

After 1975, the plantation industry throughout New Guinea went into a rapid decline. Labour became hard to get, and even harder to control. No plantation was immune and production of copra and shell rapidly fell nationwide. A rise in nationalist sentiment as the new and hopelessly unprepared nation tried to continue the sophisticated administrative practices of its former colonial masters affected Nuguria and every other agricultural and commercial enterprise in the country. Inexperienced and under qualified clerks and junior tradesmen were shoe-horned into senior administrative positions in government and private enterprise, usually with disastrous results.
Life on isolated Nuguria Atoll was slower to change and the coconut groves which covered most of the 58 islands in the group still produced copra. The reefs continued to yield commercial quantities of trocas shell and Carson still owned and controlled the atoll, but his sway no longer held to the extent that he could decide who could and could not live there. Outsiders including missionaries from some of the fundamentalist Christian sects arrived. They succeeded in proselytising the more impressionable islanders, persuading them to discard traditional ancestor worship and replace it with their own aggressive brand of Christianity. Schisms developed, sometimes dividing families. One breakaway group moved to the southern end of the atoll and built a new village restricted to the newly converted.
A few short years after Independence, most of the expatriate population of New Guinea was either selling up and moving out, or adapting to the new regime and learning to accept bribery as a normal business tool. Carson, now a citizen of Papua New Guinea, stayed on and adapted as best he could, but labour was now unreliable; production of copra and trocas shell continued a downward spiral and his bank started to deliver threats of foreclosure, only deterred from actually doing so because, by government decree, plantations were now unsaleable to non-nationals and credit for PNG citizens to purchase them was no longer available due to the high rate of failure by those who had.

Family Group. Nuguria

Nuguria is no longer a working plantation. 'King' Carson is dead and the islanders are now left largely to their own devices with only sporadic official visits from the dysfunctional Papua New Guinea government. The airstrip, hacked out of the jungle by teams of villagers and plantation labourers is overgrown and no longer useable. The cargo ship which brought regular supplies and medical assistance to the atolls is broken down and unseaworthy and Nuguria can now only be reached by a hazardous dash across the miles of open water which separate it from New Ireland in small workboats or outboard-powered sampans which occasionally risk the crossing, or by a PNG Defence Force patrol boat. The atoll is now notionally administered as part of the Bougainville Province, but Bougainville, wracked by internal divisions carried over from the civil war which led to the destruction of the huge open-pit mine at Panguna cannot govern itself, let alone concern itself with distant Nuguria, which it has effectively abandoned.

In early 2002 Carson was voyaging from Nuguria to Nissan Island en route to Buka at the Northern end of Bougainville in the plantation workboat MV Eileen, when he collapsed with what was later diagnosed as a severe cranial occlusion. His crew continued on to Buka where the former hospital, now reduced to an aid post with limited medical equipment still existed. After a long delay, he was evacuated by air as an emergency patient to the Catholic Mission Hospital at Vunapope on New Britain, where he was treated for the stroke which had left him partially blind and unable to speak distinctly. Months went by and his condition did not improve. He and his wife Tetau flew to Australia, the nearest source of skilled remedial treatment for a stroke victim; but the delay in obtaining specialist treatment had, by now, resulted in permanent damage. Although still active, he spoke with difficulty, he could not write or type, and his vision was poor. As a Papua New Guinean citizen, he was only granted a three month visa by an unsympathetic Australian High Commission in Port Moresby, which also endorsed the visa of this former Australian citizen and member of The Royal Australian Naval Reserve "Not to be renewed or extended." Medical treatment in Australia was cut short when his visa expired, and he returned to New Guinea and to Nuguria where he died in May 2004.

He is buried alongside his mother on Tekani Island near the deserted and abandoned house where he lived and worked for most of his adult life. The trade wind still stirs the palm fronds above the graves and frigate birds circle high overhead, as they did when he and his sister lived there as children on this lonely Pacific atoll on the edge of the world.


Friday, 16 May 2008


Kieta 1976... Now derelict and abandoned


Part 1

The day started normally enough on Bougainville Island. Our office in Toniva, a suburb of the small coastal town of Kieta opened for business at the usual time and I sat down at my desk after checking the telex, (remember telex?), for overnight messages.

A call from our Papuan store manager from the main cargo wharf was the start of what turned out to be the beginning of the end for B F Darcey & Company, and the signal for our exodus from New Guinea.

"Customs say we can't ship that two tons of trocas for Japan"

"Why not? The export entries are in."

"Something about no more shell exports by non-nationals"

I drove to the wharf and found our shipment of bagged trocas shell resting on pallettes with a small crowd of locals gathered around it.
Manager Jim was glowering at two unsmiling customs officials, one of whom had a proprietorial foot placed firmly on the nearest bag of trocas.

"The law has changed", I was informed. "Dealing in trocas shell is now only for Papua New Guineans and your business can no longer buy, sell or export it".
A check with Port Moresby confirmed this, and was swiftly followed by an offer from an anonymus caller."Just heard about your problem. I'm a citizen and I'll be happy to buy the trocas from you…..". A price of less than half the market value of the shell followed.

30 years on, a similar situation would present no problems. In today's New Guinea a discreet bundle of money in a plain envelope would result in removal of whatever the impediment was, but in those early post-independence times, bribery was unheard of.
It was 1978. Three years after a reluctant Papua New Guinea had been pitchforked into independence, ready or not, by the Australian Government, and things were rapidly unravelling.

The more prescient private business owners had already either sold up and moved out of the country or converted their firms to a partnership with one or more of their native staff as majority shareholders. This made the business no longer "foreign" and it could theoretically continue to trade, unhindered by the increasing number of restrictions on business for those now labelled "non-nationals'.

Finance for the new part-owners was obtained by way of a government-guaranteed bank loan. The more prudent of the former sole owners lost no time in transferring their money out of the country and usually followed it, leaving the business to be run by what was,more often than not, inexperienced and untrained new management
We had not done this and continued to run our Company as a fully owned family business.

We traded in Cocoa, Coffee, Trocas Shell, Crocodile Skins and other tropical commodities. We owned several commercial buildings at Toniva near the port of Kieta, a fleet of 4 wheel drive vehicles, and a twin engined aircraft which I flew. We ran a retail store which sold everything from artifacts and carvings to women's clothing and jewellery, and we lived in a house which we had built on the beach at Toniva, a short walk away from the office and stores.

'Head in the sand' accurately describes the mindset of the Darceys and many other expatriates in those post-independence years. The children, especially our young daughters, in the years immediately before our departure, had been increasingly exposed to aggressive and intimidating behaviour from young males in the streets and elsewhere and they were ready to leave long before their parents.

We were constantly getting unwanted and unpalatable advice to "sell out and get out" from former residents of similar places to Papua New Guinea who had moved there after their lives in Africa and Southeast Asia had been made uncomfortable, unsafe, or both.
We did not listen to them. New Guinea had been home for over 30 years. All four children had been born there, and life was prosperous and enjoyable. Where would we go ? Australia was fine for holidays and a good place to send the children for their secondary education, but not a place where we wanted to live.

Those who did move were easy targets for sellers of all kinds of fringe investments in Australia. Macadamia plantations, Ti Tree farms, Avocado orchards and other trendy investment schemes were only some of the means used to separate returning New Guinea residents from their money.

We stayed on; coping with an every increasing level of interference from the new Papua New Guinea Government, and a studied refusal to continue anything other than a benevolent 'hands off' by the Australian Government while it continued to send millions of Australian Dollars in untied annual grants to its former Trust Territory.