PNGAA Library

Vudal and the Mataungans, 1970: Gordon Dick

Here are the next two instalments of Gordon Dick’s recollections of his time as Principal of Vudal Agricultural College in 1970: a year made difficult by the Mataungan’s land claims and the militaristic response of the Australian administration.

John Kaputin and the Mataungan Leadership

My acquaintance with John Kaputin went back to rugby league matches in Port Moresby. No one who saw it would forget the try John scored in the Papua versus New Guinea match of 1961 to snatch victory for his team. And those who have listened to the tapes or read the books of Taim Bilong Masta will remember the outrageous racism directed at him from the stands. Somehow he was too big to be hurt by that: he simply ignored it.

John was a fine figure of a man and a splendid athlete from an athletic people. He was educated and articulate and by 1970 was already a Member of Papua New Guinea's House of Assembly.

It was quite a relief for me when John, as acknowledged spokesman for the Mataungans, and several others of their leadership called on me at Vudal to discuss their aims and to give an assurance that they respected the neutrality of the College. They also gave an assurance that College land, some of which was caught up in the current conflict, would remain with the College.

This first visit came after the shape of the conflict was becoming clearer. The Mataungans were making moves to physically occupy more of the Trans-Vudal area, and the Administration was building up its forces and looking to constrain entry and to eventually clear the area. There was only one road into the area. It ran through the College with staff housing on both sides of it.

There was an unwillingness on the part of the Administration to reconsider what had been proposed and the press and colonial opinion was mostly stridently anti-Mataungan. Kaputin made a number of visits to Australia during 1970, where he was baited by an ignorant press and on occasion responded with venom.

Kaputin was well aware that he could increase local tension by moving out of Rabaul. But he chose to remain at his unit in the Methodist Mission compound. He walked to the newsagency each day and collected the papers and was always calm and courteous. One touch I liked was a large Australian flag displayed upside down on the wall of his living room: a signal of distress. The flag had been given to him by the Australian Prime Minister (Harold Holt) when he was a student at the East-West Centre in Hawaii. (John also told me that Archbishop Mannix in Melbourne had his rooms painted in the Queen's racing colours.)

About mid-1970 John Gorton (as Prime Minister) visited Papua New Guinea. A crowd met him at Matupit airport. He made a speech and bewailed the divided state of the Tolai people. But he went on to say that he had not come just to speak but to listen and if the people had things to say he would hear them. Kaputin walked onto the stage and took the microphone and proceeded to give what Pacific Islands Monthly described as ‘The best speech of John Gorton's PNG tour: John Kaputin at the airport.’

To my amazement soon after Gorton's visit I found that I was being named as the author of Kaputin's speech! I did not have the concepts, the wit or the words! But the unwillingness to acknowledge talent among the local people was enlightening.

John has continued on in a long career in politics. He has held many ministerial positions. From 2005 to 2010 he served as a Secretary General of the African-Caribbean-Pacific group of states. He was knighted in 1997.

Attempts to Clear the Tolai People from the Trans-Vudal Area

With a force of over 1,000 armed police and adequate trucks to move them, the ‘Authorities’ began a series of excursions to remove the Tolai people from the disputed area. The first of these took the College by surprise: about 6am more than 40 trucks loaded with Police with rifles drove in convoy through the College and towards the Trans-Vudal area. They were followed by several ambulances.

As it happened, the Tolai 'squatters' were not surprised: they had their own information sources. Moreover they had been building up their numbers and the ‘Authorities’ were beginning to restrict road movements by use of road blocks.

The Tolais had also had briefings on how to respond to tear gas and they scattered in small groups over large semi-cleared areas.

This first attempt was brought into perspective when the local ‘Mr. Whippy’ drove up the road—‘Greensleeves’ playing—and sold ice creams to both sides.

The effects on the College were not good. Student motivation and concentration were very disturbed. The noise of the trucks and the clatter of helicopters and not knowing what was intended nor what was going on was disturbing.

I met with the student body—a fairly frequent thing that year—and hosed down the ardour of several firebrands who wanted to march into Rabaul. I reminded them that the same 'Administration' dealing with the Tolai land problem was funding their scholarships and supplying the whole College, its staff and facilities.

I also resolved to seek a meeting with the Secretary of the Administrator's Department, Tom Ellis.