People in Papua New Guinea

Sites unseen

6 June 2022

Exploring personal photographs and albums.

Personal photographs and albums shed light on another side of colonial Papua under Australian administration in the exhibition Pacific Views

Born and raised in Sydney, Hubert Plunkett Murray (born 1861) was Governor of Papua from 1908 to his death in 1940. Highly educated, athletic and in his private correspondence, humorous, Murray was unusual for his era in his relatively democratic if paternalistic governance of the people of Papua and New Guinea. Most of his papers were donated to the National Library of Australia, but in 2014 some personal photographs and albums were given to the Macleay Collections by Sava Pinney, his great granddaughter.

Murray’s daughter Mary and her husband Charles Pinney lived in Port Moresby and Norfolk Island and most of the family collection at the Chau Chak Wing Museum documents their life in colonial service during the 1920s and 1930s. However, one album of 54 views appears to be earlier and made for a different purpose than family enjoyment. In this small grey paper album, each image has been carefully captioned twice, with strips of purple typescript with instructions for placement of each image within a manuscript or publication.

Murray wrote two books about the territory: Papua or British New Guinea (1912), when the colony abutted German New Guinea; and Papua of Today: an Australian colony in the making (1925), written when German New Guinea was a League of Nations Mandated Territory under Australian administration. Both books include large numbers of images: no photographs in the album directly match either of the books, but the themes, views, locations and subjects overlap.

Photo album

'BAIMURU page 234 foll, and 238', photographer unknown, Baimuru, Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea, c.1910. Macleay Collections, HP2014.1.376.09

Together the books and the album give different views of the colonial inroads in this geographically complex country where the word ‘remote’ applies to most of the country’s villages and townships. There are two overwhelming differences between the books and the album. One is the album’s numerous images of colonial monuments such as roads, churches, plantation houses and government buildings. The second is the presence of Murray and other colonial workers alongside the colonies’ laborers, police, civic leaders, and prisoners.

These differences of view, rather than location, give a sense of how the album’s composer saw Murray and themselves as part of a team with locals, missionaries and commercial planters working together in the Territory. In contrast, the books’ images emphasise the people of the Territory, and carry the message of Murray’s final words in Papua or British New Guinea “their permanent advance upon the road of civilization.” By the publication of Papua of Today, the conclusion is aimed steadily at what that future may be:

the greatest danger of all may come from what I may call a benevolent capitalism – a capitalism which will use the native solely ... in the interests of non-resident capitalists, ... If [the Papuan] escapes this fate, he may have a fairly prosperous future before him.

It is possible that the album reflects an early draft of illustrations for Murray’s publications, with the most compelling evidence from the labels being the image captioned ‘The author and his bodyguard’, (Murray was unusually tall at 1.9 meters). This image may be part of a series documenting visits of inspection during these early years of Murray’s administration in 1909–10. Views in the album include places along the walking track made by the Catholic Sacred Heart Mission that Murray and his party travelled from the coast to Dilava, Mafulu, Gaiva and into Kuni lands, and then to the top of Mount Pitzoko. There are also images of Lakeamu gold field, and another group of images that follow the route the Government party took from Goaribari island into the hinterlands of the Kikori river. If this reasoning proves correct through further research, it would mean identifying the many other people in the images, such as Seargent Gaiberi who may have been the man identified as Murray’s bodyguard during the Kikori expedition.

The album is included in the exhibition Pacific Views, on display in the historic photography gallery, Chau Chak Wing Museum, until 24 July 2022.

Dr Jude Philp is Senior Curator, Macleay Collections, Chau Chak Wing Museum.

This article was first published in issue 28 of Muse Magazine, April 2022. 

Header image: 'The author and his bodyguard', photographer unknown, Central or Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea, c.1910. Macleay Collections, HP2014.1.376.25