Chapter 2. The Attack Arising from
We come to the day when Gwe was still an infant in his pandanus-leaf blanket,
snug within his mother’s big net bag, as the big bag rocked from a low
branch of a tree in the garden she was weeding. In a few hours—after
nightfall—five days’ walk from Gwe’s mother’s home, what was called
by the Australian press the Ketta-bora Disaster would take place.
|Stiffen the sinews, summon up
Disguise fair nature with hard-favored
Then lend the eye a terrible
—William Shakespeare, King Henry the Fifth
|It is necessary to see that
while the contempt which is in every one of us may make ordinary life more
painful than it should be, this contempt is also the main cause of wars.
—Eli Siegel, "What Caused the Wars,"
The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, # 165
That year, white men
had first come to Ketta-bora in the high mountains. They brought black
policemen. One was Sergeant Samai who had once been a favorite child, a
darling child, of Hurari: a village on stilts extending into the Pacific
Ocean near Port Moresby.
The sergeant took
choice Ketta-bora land to grow his crops. He thought the Ketta-bora people
were ignorant and primitive. To himself he called them wild pigs. To make
them obey he would punch a man’s nose so blood came out. He would beat
a man with a club. To impress them with his extraordinary power he and
armed police constables called for a pig at Ketta-bora villages in the
bush, and he, with one shot of his World War I rifle, would kill it instantly.
The roar of wonder and fear from many men would please him immensely. Once
he killed a Ketta-bora man with a blow from his rifle butt. The sergeant
and some of his constables were having a superb contempt for the men of
Ketta-bora who had seen no weapon but a bone knife, wooden arrow, and fighting
pick tipped with the nail of a cassowary.
There were a dozen
police, dressed in blue, transported into bush country from their coastal
homes. What were their jobs officially? Keep the peace, mediate with natives,
provide the force to back up the two white patrol officers in their conflict-settling
mission and their mineral-sampling1; count
the census and keep the men in their lines. They had power over the smaller
men of the mountains whom the women knew as father, brother, and husband.
The patrol officers
and police put the men to work. The men made roads, an airstrip, built
a patrol post, and planes flew in and out of it with mail, materials, wages,
Women, married and
unmarried, were dazzled by the large officers of the law who possessed
stunning blue clothing and who had razors, silver shillings, knives and
steel axes rather than stone. Directed by the white men, these police bought
hundreds of arrows from the men, thus disarming them. And the girls had
power in their fashion over these big men, who, however, wouldn’t marry
them. Women and land: the dozen or so police had these. And their bosses,
the two white officers, had the police and power. And one of the white
officers took, as mistress, a married woman of Ketta-bora.2
Drunk with conceit,
unbalanced by contempt, these government men, both white and black, felt
they were born to superiority.
When told to line
up for the census (every few months the government kept track of who was
living where and with whom) the diminutive Ketta-bora warriors would grind
their teeth in fury and stand in orderly lines with folded arms. The bigger-bodied
foreigners would say: "You’re not strong, you’re just little children."
The men did what they
were told and made secret plans. One night in 1952, after a ceremony to
make themselves hard and cold like pythons, they attacked the police and
white men, and were victorious.3
As Gwe snuggled on
the lap of his mother in the family house, late at night, and pursed his
lips to suckle milk, the men rose up against the invaders. The last mortal
thing two white patrol officers saw was over forty black warriors painted
in red, yellow and blue, who had run silently into their sleeping quarters.
One officer was the youthful pride of a family dealing in wool; the other
was the pride of a seller of vegetables. Stone axes and bone knives were
used, thighbones of cassowaries honed to a point and gripped by the knurl,
to effect executions by Ketta-bora law, upon the officers and their police:
ravishers of women, killers of men, and arrogant thieves of land.
Sergeant Samai, who
30 years before swam in the lucent water of the Papuan Gulf between the
posts of his father’s elevated house, with the women laughing as his two
little feet flashed like fish, who had loved and won a beautiful woman
of Hurari and sang to her on the sand in the evening, on that last night
of his life saw black eyes flash triumphantly into his own as a bone knife
pressed between his ribs. It went through a lung, and into his heart, which
stopped beating. His spirit went to his ancestors in the dark world below.
His wife, later, mourned for him in Hurari.
After this was done,
the men of Ketta-bora cut trees and began dragging them across the airstrip
to prevent government planes from flying in from the coast and landing.
With bamboo knives, then, they cut the police and patrol officers in little
pieces, butchering them like pigs, cooked them in an earth oven, and late
in the morning ate them with taro. Here was the supreme contempt for the
enemy. This meat they were eating had just a few hours before been thinking,
feeling, hoping human beings just as they were themselves.
The government radio
at Ketta-bora did not respond to inquiries from headquarters in Kiriwinoo.
The Administration guessed what might have happened and sent a small plane
to observe from the air, and what the pilot saw confirmed their suspicion.
A punitive expedition, well armed, was sent by river boat and then by foot,
up the Sepik and through the foothills, into the central mountain region.
They dragged those trees from the airstrip, cleaned it up, radioed for
help. In three hours one plane after another landed with police who bundled
into them all the men, women and children they could catch for a trip to
the coast and jail. The killers were tried in court and sentenced to death.
One of the children,
Wogeo, learned Tok Pisin, eventually became an interpreter, then a police
lieutenant himself, and years later would cheat Gwe at cards at the patrol
post in Oksapmin.
It was into this atmosphere
of mutual contempt, fear, and fury between black and white that Gwe was
born. And Gwe would tell his anthropologist friend Alan what he heard of
Ketta-bora, in years to come.
It would have been
so simple for the white men to have asked, "Why, O men of Ketta-bora, do
you feel so angry at us that you grind your teeth and glare?"
The men they jailed
did not want to do this thing: they had to become, in a ceremony, like
serpents to do so. They were men who thought, felt, and hoped just as the
white men and the police did. The men they jailed, and thought savages,
were using horror to rid themselves of the horror that invaded them. And
they too desired the victory of contempt.
"Contempt for what
is different from ourselves is an insane principle of great moment in history,"
writes Eli Siegel; and the only solution is to see others with the same
depth and fulness we want to be seen with ourselves. The beginning sameness
we all have in common must be studied to defeat the insane principle of
1Copper ore was found.
This find resulted in vast environmental destruction by mining in the Mountain
2Some details in
this chapter are based on Barry Craig's account of the murders at Telefolmin,
1953 (Barry Craig and David Hyndman, editors, Children of Afek: Tradition
and Change among the Mountain-Ok of Central New Guinea, University
of Sydney: 1990).
3In a personal communication,
George Morren of Rutgers University told me of this ceremony among the
Mianmin people where he conducted research.