Mary Mennis


Mary Mennis, nee Eccles, first went to Papua New Guinea in 1962 as a primary school teacher with the then Administration of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea having a BA with a major in history from the University of Melbourne. She was posted to a bush materials school on Matupi Island, just outside Rabaul. Here she met many of the village elders and became interested in their cultural history, including myths and oral traditions. Using the knowledge gained, she wrote her first historical novel „Time of the Tauber” about the interaction of two groups of Tolai people on opposite sides of Rabaul Harbour in pre-contact times. Resulting from her more general interest in the myths and legends, she co-operated with Hermann Janssen and Brenda Skinner in editing Tolai Myths of Origin.

In 1971, the family moved to Madang, with six months in Mt Hagen en route. Not wasting the opportunity in Mt Hagen she wrote Hagen Saga, a life of Father William Ross, who, with Danny and Mick Leahy, was one of the early pioneers into the highlands of Papua New Guinea. While this was essentially a history of the mission, she included a lot of material of much interest to future researchers into the local people.

Arriving in Madang in 1971, the centenary of the arrival of Baron Miklouho Maclay in the Rai Coast area was being celebrated. Reading his diaries and his description of the large trading canoes led to Mary’s lifelong interest in the canoes and trading systems of Astrolabe Bay. Studying for her first Master’s degree, Mary talked to many of the old village men in many and varied villages around Madang collecting oral histories, genealogies, and information of the pre-contact trading systems. This lead to the publication of Potted History of Madang, which is essentially a history of the Madang area from the perspective of the local people.

In the mid 1970s, along with a group of five old men from Bilbil village, she was instrumental in arranging the construction of a trading canoe of a type that had not been seen for over 40 years. Returning to Brisbane in 1982, she became interested in local Aboriginal history. This led to another historical novel, The Red Cliffs, dealing with the interaction of the first white settlers in the Redcliffe area from the Aboriginal perspective.

Furthering her studies, she was part of team from the James Cook University in Townsville which documented the construction of two lagatoi (canoes) on Magnetic Island. This enabled her to compare these canoes and the Hiri trading system of the South Coast of Papua with the canoes and trading system in the Madang area. In recognition of her work among the Madang people, she was awarded an MBE in 2009 following a recommendation of the Papua New Guinea Government.

Tolai Myths of Origin

Having lived in the Rabaul area for a time, we felt the need to find out more about the myths and legends of the Tolai people. We found that the majority of young people there know little or nothing about the mythical traditions of their ancestors. We were fortunate to discover copies of three collections of myths and legends of the Tolai people re corded by the early missionaries. Fr Joseph Meier, M.S.C. came to New Britain in 1899. He collected his myths of origin in Rakunai, Navunaram, Livuan and Ramale Villages. Besides this collection of myths and legend, he published more than forty articles on the Manus, Tolai, Baining and Sulka people. Fr Meier died in 1943 in Allentown, North America.

Fr Otto Meyer, M.S.C. arrived in New Britain in 1902. He recorded the myths of the Watom Islanders in Tarivo, Ramala and Rau Villages. It was while he was on Watom Island that he discovered ancient shards of pottery which led to significant archaeological digs and important information about the Lapita people who lived there may thousands of years ago. The list of Fr Meyer’s publications include forty articles mainly on ornithology, physical and cultural anthropology and linguistics of the Tolai people. Fr Meyer died in 1937 in Brisbane, Australia.

Fr August Kleintitischen M.S.C. began his work as a missionary on New Britain in 1900. His collection of myths comes from the areas around Paparatava, Vairiki, Viviran, Tanaka and Navunaram Villages. His main publication, besides nearly thirty articles on various topics of the Tolai culture, was his book, Die Küstenbewohner der Gazelle-Halbinsel (The Coastal People of the Gazelle Peninsula). Fr Kleintitischen died in Vunapope during the Japanese Occupation in 1942.

The original collections of the myths and legends are all written in an old form of the Tolai language and translated into German. There are only a few copies left in New Britain as most of them were destroyed during the war, and we felt the need to print a collection of these myths for today’s generation.
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Merging Men and Nature

Myths of Melanesia

These myths are from Madang, Manus Island, the Sepik area, the Highlands, New Britain and the Port Moresby area of Papua New Guinea as well as two from Irian Jaya. They are grouped under categories like Origin of Pottery, Two Brother Myths; Myths about mountains and Origin Myths for ease of comparison. The late Professor Colin De’Ath and I were both doing research in the Madang area in the 1970s. He was working on the Gogol area researching the effects of the Trans-Gogol Timber Project on the local villagers, whereas I was doing research into the culture of the coastal Madang people and changes that had occurred over the years. At that time, we collaborated on this publication, Merging Men and Nature: Myths of Melanesia. (...)

In the years since this collection was made there has been a growing awareness that some of the myths incorporate many historical facts into the stories. For example, in the story of the marita fruit and the snake there is mention of a large „flood” which was possibly a tsunami that inundated the north coast of Madang breaking off a piece of land at Nagada Point where the Lilung people once lived. This tsunami has now been dated by scientists as happening about 500 years ago. The people recorded this event with a myth of a magic snake who punished the people who ate him by sending the tsunami. In this way the story was transmitted from one generation to the next. The story genre was easily learnt and remembered and retold around the fires at night for centuries. Not all stories were transmitted this way. Certain ones were specially owned by a few members of the clan.
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Potted hisory of Madang

Traditional Culture and Change on the North Coast of Papua New Guinea

This work was not done haphazardly. I was in constant contact with historians at the University of Papua New Guinea, including Professor Don Denoon and Dr Rod Lacy who greatly encouraged my work. The first assignment they gave to me was to see how much historical fact there was in traditional myths Choosing the Kilibob and Manup myth, I visited Budup to investigate the place where these two mythical brothers were said to have had a fight. The older one, Kilibob, built a ship here and sailed away promising to return. It was a long shot but this visit to Budup led to discovery of stories of distant visitors to the shores of Madang whose ship had been washed ashore during a tidal wave. Ebony statues, ship fittings and steel knives previously found at the site were material evidence of the foreign ship’s visit which had been absorbed into the local mythology. The fact that the sailors on board had promised to return bringing cargo for the people led to the first cargo cult in the area. It was a fascinating beginning to years of research.

The Bel people in the Madang area trace their origins back twelve generations to the Island of Yomba which, according to their traditions, disappeared with a large tsunami. Leaving their island home, those who survived established small settlements on the North Coast often in poor areas and subsequently relied on trading their pots to buy food for their very survival. Their large canoes were described by Miklouho-Maclay in 1871.

Maia Awak, leader of the Gapan clan in Bilbil Village.

When we arrived a century later, these canoes had not been built for 40 years. In 1978, I encouraged the last five canoe builders in Bilbil Village to build another one, a lalong, and accompanied the men to the jungle to collect the materials needed and noted measurement, type of wood etc. It was a time of great discovery and adventure for me. The village elders became deeply involved in the project, treasured as they were for their knowledge of their traditional ways. These old headmen of Bilbil and other Bel villages were amongst the finest and most knowledgeable men I have ever known, spanning, as they did, the time of the old traditions with that of modern times. I hold their memory dear.

Derr, Damun, Gab and Pall. After Maia died, these four men were the canoe builders in 1978.

The canoes were large vessels with one or two mat sails and they epitomised the highest technical knowledge of the village people in traditional times made, as they were, with tools of stone, shells, bones and wood and using only bush materials. The pots they traded were of paramount importance as they were the currency of the day buying food, brides, ornaments, weapons and tools in trade exchanges with people who did not have the art of pottery making.
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Tubuan and Tabernacle

The life stories of two priests of Papua New Guinea

The Sacred Heart Missionaries arrived on Matupit Island on the Feast of St Michael, 29 September 1882. The history of the Mission and the traditional culture and beliefs of the Tolai people provide the background for this present book.

Fr Franke at his Golden Jubilee Mass in Rabaul, 1977.

This story is about two priests: one a German and the other a Papua New Guinean from the Rabaul area of New Britain. Fr Bernard Franke arrived from Germany in 1928 when he was 26 years old, full of missionary zeal and spent the following 50 years in New Britain. Archbishop Benedict To Varpin grew up in the Tolai society with all the traditional tribal customs. Both were wonderful men who exemplify St Paul’s message about the importance of love. Fr Franke, an expatriate, viewed the people of New Britain and their culture from the outside looking in, whereas Benedict To Varpin, a Tolai man, viewed the culture from the inside looking out. Fr Franke wanted his biography to be called A Priest is not His Own to emphasis the fact that once he was ordained, he belonged to the people.

Benedict To Varpin, however, wanted his biography to be named, Thy Will be Done, stressing more the obedience to his vows in his life and doing what was asked of him. Both amount to the same idea really: Doing God’s will in the Service of Others. Both had the same goals as priests giving their lives to God and were united in their love of the Tolai people.
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Bishop Benedict with his family and friends after the Consecration Mass.

Mariners of Madang

Austronesian Canoes of Astrolabe Bay, Papua New Guinea

Mariners of Madang recalls a time when the local people constructed large canoes and traversed the Madang and Astrolabe Bay Coasts with cargoes of pots which were the basis of their trading system. This was first recorded by Baron Miklouho-Maclay in 1871. The captains of these canoes were respected mariners and were welcomed at each village where they had trade friends. Detailing the construction of a lalong canoe in 1978, nearly forty years after the last trading canoe was destroyed during World War II, the measurements, materials and tools were noted.

Lalong illustrated by Miklouho-Maclay (Tumarkin, 1982: 181)

The technical skills of the mariners who used bush materials of timber, vines and bark from the forest and tools made of wood, shell, stone, bone was obvious. The form of these canoes was determined by their function, as the large pot cage which straddled the outrigger could hold a hundred earthenware pots. The canoe began as a tree in the forest protected by bush spirits which must be placated at every stage of its construction. It was transformed and launched into the sea where further ceremonies protected it from angry sea spirits. The mariners relied on magic so that the trading voyage would be successful: the weather magician controlled the winds; and a secret language confused the spirits. This volume traces the roles these canoes played in the trading system of the past centuries and the trade items, against which the pots were traded and details the many reasons why they ceased to be built.
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Sailing for Survival

Comparative Report

Sailing for Survival is a comparative study of the trading systems and canoes of two groups of people in Papua New Guinea: the Bel people of Bilbil/Yabob on the North Coast, near Madang and the Motu people on the South Coast, near Port Moresby. There is now no doubt that they shared a common ancestry in West New Britain. They both belong to Austronesian language groups but had no contact with each other on their trade routes, separated as they were by twisting coastlines and rugged mountain ranges, nor did any trade items [apart from obsidian] pass from one trading zone to the other for over two thousand years. Yet the trade systems they developed independently have an amazing array of commonality harking back to their common ancestry in the Bismarck Archipelago. The association between archaeological and linguistic distributions suggests that the movement of Papuan Tip Cluster speakers to the west along the Papuan Coast took place about 2800 years ago, and the time depth for the spread out of the Bismarcks area of North New Guinea cluster languages may be within the last 1500 years.

Lagatoi in Port Moresby Harbour, 1880.

The members of each group, the Bel and the Motu evolved their own system of survival through trading pots on long trading voyages which became a focal point of their culture, beliefs and ritual. In their response to their environmental conditions and, influenced by introduced technological features, they developed quite different trading vessels: the lagatoi of the Motu people and the lalong and balangut of the Madang people. One of the aims of this report is to relate the construction of each of these vessels and compare and contrast them with the conclusion that form follows function. Many of the characteristics of the two trading systems the dadeng/waing of the Madang area and the hiri of the Motu are comparable: the need to trade because of infertile soil; the clay pots that the women made; the position of the women in the trading system; the mythology and origin myths of the trading system; the belief in magic to protect the traders and enhance the weather; the use of geographic points; the winds; and the stars to aid navigation.
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Pots being transported on a double canoe out to the lagatoi. Groves, 1957.

Motu women potters in Port Moresby, making pots for the Hiri trade, 1900s.

Rempi to Rebiamul

Missions from Madang to Mt Hagen 1896 to 2016

This book describes the progress of the Catholic SVD missions on the coast and in the Highlands from 1896 until 2016. Two places of significance in this story are Rempi Village on the coast and Rebiamul which is now the centre of the Mt Hagen diocese.(...) When the Divine Word Missionaries arrived in 1896, they first established a mission at Tumleo Island near Aitape. Then in 1906, their headquarters was established at Alexishafen, near Madang, with workshops, shipping yards, schools, convents and priest quarters as well as a church.

Workers at the Wilya mission (M. Leahy).

The first leader of the Catholic Mission was Fr Limbrock who set about establishing plantations to make the mission independent. He had many arguments with the German government, as the Neu Guinea Kompagnie wanted the mission land for its own plantations. The First World War brought an end of the German rule and the German missionaries were then seen as enemy aliens by the new Australian Administration. In 1922, Bishop Wolf SVD became the new leader and requested an English speaking missionary to help communicate with the Australian officials. Enter Fr William Ross from America in 1926 to be the Bishop’s secretary. However, his lack of German proved to be a hindrance and he settled in Rempi Village as the Parish Priest. He was an adventurous young man eager to explore the nearby mountains behind Alexishafen. He made short treks to the mission stations of Halopa and Sigu. Then he ventured further in 1927 with Jock McKay to the mountains at Saruga, where they were attacked. These treks gave Fr Ross a thirst for exploring far into the mountains to find distant tribes.

From left to right: Frs Aufenanger, Schaefer, Cranssen and Br Anton Baas.

Fr Ross and Br Gerhoch on horseback near Rempi in the 1930s.

The first explorations of the Highlands from the east and the north began with the first flight over the Wahgi Valley on 8 March 1933 by Mick and Dan Leahy and Jim Taylor. Details can be found in Mick’s diary. Following their amazing discovery, Frs Schaefer, Cranssen and Brother Anton ventured to the Bismarck Mountains at the end of that same year, coming in from the north. In 1934, Fr Ross was keen to explore beyond the Bismarck Range and trek as far as Mt Hagen where his friends Mick and Dan Leahy had set up an alluvial gold mine. He selected over 70 able-bodied young men from Rempi and the surrounding villages as mission workers to accompany him to Mt Hagen and their descendants live there yet. Five missionaries made this original trek: Frs Ross, Schaefer, Tropper, Aufenanger and Br Eugene Frank. It took them nearly forty days travelling over the Bismarck Ranges and through country never seen before by outsiders. In Mt Hagen, they were welcomed by Wamp Wan and Ninji Kama, two chiefs of the Mt Hagen area.
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Alexishafen Cathedral, 1939.