Memorialising tragedy in Papua New Guinea

23 March 2018

A Deakin researcher is considering the moral dimensions of Papua New Guinean dark tourism initiatives.

Located on the slopes of volcanic Mount Lamington in Papua New Guinea’s Oro Province, the old Higaturu Station is a place marked by violence and memories.

It is less than an hour’s drive from the Provincial capital, Popondetta, on the way to Kokoda, which, depending on which way you are walking is either the beginning or the end of the Kokoda track.

That 96-kilometre track over the Owen Stanley Ranges is the focal point of a burgeoning but unevenly spread war tourism industry in the Province.

Between July-September 1943, at the height of the Second World War, 21 local men were executed in Higaturu for charges stemming from the ‘betrayal’ of eight to ten missionaries in August 1942 who were brutally murdered by occupying Japanese forces.

Eight years later in January 1951, thousands were killed and the landscape of the region devastated by the unexpected eruption of Mount Lamington.

These twin tragedies of the mid-twentieth century have had a marked and continued impact on the local consciousness of the region. For some, the eruption of Mount Lamington is understood as a monumental act of retaliatory violence for past wrong-doings, either for the betrayal of the missionaries to the Japanese or directed towards the Europeans involved in the ‘Higaturu hangings’.

Research fellow Dr Victoria Stead from Deakin’s Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI) has spent much of her time over the past three years in Papua New Guinea recording interviews for an oral history project about local experiences of WWII.

In recent years, there have been local attempts to memorialise these tragedies through the formation of memorial committees, as well as calls for funding for site memorials from the family of Cecil Cowley, the District Commissioner in charge of the Higaturu Government Station who perished in the eruption.

These memorial attempts, not unlike the mountainous 96-kilometre Kokoda Track just a short drive away, or the sites of atrocities and disasters in Poland, Japan, or Cambodia, represent an increasing trend of war or ‘dark’ tourism.

“Not unlike gold or palm oil, history – and particularly wartime history – increasingly presents itself to local people as a resource that might attract visitors, and with them forms of wealth and possibilities for realising the good life,” Dr Stead said.

“However, many worry that the outsiders they attract will exploit and profit from their history in the ways that so many outsiders have profited from the Province’s other resources.”

Yet the history of the region brings even greater moral complications to the fore. Complications like Papua New Guinea’s colonial past and its enduring impact upon the country, as well as the shared trauma of lost Papua New Guinean and Australian life in the volcanic eruption, losses for which some locals attribute responsibility to the colonial administration of the time.

"The remembrance of the Higaturu hangings and the volcanic eruption prompts sadness, even anger, at colonial injustice and inequality, but both events also bind Papuans and Australians together, and it is at the place Higaturu that those complex bindings find expression," said Dr Stead.

“In 2015, during the course of an oral history project, four Papua New Guinean colleagues and I had planned to visit Higaturu.

“On the way up the mountain, the vehicle we were travelling in was stopped. A small crowd gathered and a debate erupted between the representatives of different groups claiming ownership of the Higaturu site. Faced with disagreement about our visit to the site, my colleagues and I turned our vehicle around and returned to Popondetta.”

Months later, Dr Stead and her colleagues did make their way up the slopes of Mt Lamington, with the landowners, for a memorial service on the 66th anniversary of the eruption.

“Contestations around the meaning of the site, and the complex histories that coalesce there continue, however,” Dr Stead said.

“These histories call attention to the enduring colonial context and legacy that continues to impact the lives of contemporary Oro Province people.”

This piece is based on an article written by Dr Stead that was published in a special issue of ‘Anthropological Forum’ co-edited by Dr Stead with Professor Michèle Dominy (Bard College New York) on the theme ‘Moral Horizons of Land and Place’.

By Deakin Research

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Research fellow Dr Victoria Stead from Deakin’s Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI)

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Research fellow Dr Victoria Stead from Deakin’s Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI)

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