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In Coral Seas: Ships, Cargo and People in the South Pacific 1930 to 1960

Jonathan Ritchie, Ocean exchanges: Australian-Pacific connections seminar, National Museum of Australia, 22 July 2009

JENNY NEWELL: We’re very fortunate to have Jonathan Ritchie joining us today all the way from Melbourne. He’s from the Deakin University’s new Alfred Deakin Research Institute, which is based in Geelong. He’s a research fellow there looking at nation-building in the Pacific.

Jon was born in Papua New Guinea, and he’s maintained a very close connection to the country. His PhD was on the development of the PNG constitution, and he’s recently been researching and recording oral histories with Papua New Guineans and working on the period between World War I and independence.

His paper today is called ‘In Coral Seas: Ships, Cargo and People in the South Pacific 1930 to 1960’. Please welcome John. [applause]

JONATHAN RITCHIE: Thank you very much everyone. Thank you, Jenny, and thank you for my preceding speakers. I’m really enjoying this morning. Now comes the hard part.

Although I came in fairly late, I’ve been lucky to experience in the 1960s something of the voyages that our Pacific ancestors made - in my case between Australia and into and among some of the islands. These voyages continue, and for many people in the South Pacific the ships that sail them are the difference between viability and extinction of their ways of living. As last week’s news from Tokelau demonstrates, for those who may have heard it on the ABC, it’s a piece about the poor state of the island’s only ship. Sea travel remains an indispensable part of life in the Pacific.

My paper today looks at some of the ships, what they carried and the people who sailed in them during the relatively recent past. My focus is the three decades or so that straddled the middle part of last century, a period that was bisected by a war that with its aftermath helped accelerate a process of enormous change, what I call the last great period of Pacific navigation in the days before super tankers, industrial container ships and globalisation made the South Pacific just another piece of ocean to cross.

There’s actually a surprisingly little amount of literature that covers this period in terms of maritime history and the people who sailed in the Pacific. There are a couple of company histories, and there are memoirs by people such as Brett Hilder and Martin Speyer, and there are some primary sources such as those contained in magazines and newspapers. Otherwise, it’s quite a sparse field. For those interested who want to find out more about the period, at the end of the paper I’ve got a slide with some further reading.

Forty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were up on the moon and if they were looking at the Pacific Ocean, it looks very blue. It would have been impossible for them to see the wake of the ships that sailed across the South Pacific, spanning the ocean from Australia and New Zealand to the United States, China, Hong Kong, Japan and Europe. The tracks of the smaller vessels as they voyaged between the southern dominions and the colonial territories would be invisible. There is no way that they could have seen traces of even smaller ships that plied the inter-island trade, the luggers, ketches, sloops, and schooners that formed the end of what we might these days call the supply and distribution chain - well, they may as well call off the search. Yet as this map illustrates, they were there in an intricate spider’s web of paths and courses [map shown]. I’m also very much taken with what Paul was saying earlier about the ways that Pacific Islanders navigated, well these are the ways the ships navigated.

The journal Pacific Islands Monthly, or PIM as it was known, was published in Sydney for 70 years from 1930. In every edition, there was a summary of the shipping services into and among the islands. I’ve chosen to examine three editions in particular to illustrate the changes that took place: January 1935, January 1957, and briefly January 1950.

In 1935, the notices showed something of the region’s dependence on the vessels that plied among the islands. There were more than 40 ships listed as sailing during that month. At the top end, ships traversed the islands on their way to and from ports in Europe, North America and East Asia. Mostly these were ships run by overseas firms, including the United States-owned Matson Oceanic Line, the French Messageries Maritimes, the German Norddeutscher Lloyd and the Dutch Royal Packet Navigation Company, which is usually referred to as KPM. The most comfortable were the large American liners such as the Mariposa and the Monterey, which promised a luxurious passage for travellers. An advertisement of the time boasted:

In 28 days from Sydney you are amid the moors and wolds of England! You have seen America from coast to coast - selecting the route that most appealed to you - as well as your desired trans-Atlantic ship. You have slipped in and out of those heart-catching ports that dot the South Pacific isles: New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii! You have sampled the luxury of new Matson-Oceanic liners, “Mariposa” or “Monterey”, on their 18-day voyage to the wonder-empire of California. Relaxed in the comfort of your stateroom, tempted by the mastery of famous chefs, invigorated by outdoor swims and ocean games, thrilled by moonlit night-club dancing, pleased by constant wish-fulfilling service. Or, if you observed a narrower budget-line, you found on these same ships the low-cost high standard of Cabin Class! Throughout this argosy, you knew the keen satisfaction of liberal stopover privileges, you found the shortest route to England gives the fullest days, the longest memories!

Such pleasures did not, of course, come cheap. A return first class fare cost 176 pounds or, by my calculation, about $60,000 in today’s currency. Clearly the beautiful life of the trans-Pacific ocean liner would have been beyond the reach of most people.

Many ships combined a passenger service with carrying goods and freight. While food and consumer items were the main part of the freight going into the islands, voyages from the islands primarily carried copra.

They had another purpose, however. They were the vanguard of government authority and the means of contact with the outside world.

The most prominent of them sailed under the flags of the Burns, Philp & Co., and in New Zealand the Union Steamship Company. And that’s a smokestack of the Burns Philp ship [image shown]. Burns, Philp dominated this part of the market, despite some competition from the Union Line and repetitive but usually unsuccessful attempts by foreign lines such as KPM, Norddeutscher Lloyd and the Japanese Nippon Yusen Kaisha or NYK.

The Burns, Philp empire, or BP as it’s commonly known, is worthy of a paper on its own and indeed there’ve been a number of histories written of the company and its operations in Australia and the Pacific. By the 1930s, the company was sailing to and from the islands, to and among the islands, with the Macdhui, the Montoro, the Malaita and the Morinda.

The Morinda was the smallest of these. Brett Hilder, who sailed in her in 1932, called her ‘an old and cranky coal-burner with a cranky set of master and officers’.

The Malaita, sailing from Sydney to ports in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, was a larger ship at 3300 tons, with refrigerated cargo space and passenger accommodation - staterooms for the Europeans, the deck for Chinese and natives. Its maiden voyage was in 1934. Passengers were promised a visit to ‘the wonder isles of the South Seas’.

The Montoro which Hilder, who also sailed in her, described as ‘a popular ship loved as much for her failings as for her homely virtues’ was larger than the Malaita. In 1937, she was close to Rabaul when the volcanoes of Tavurvur and Vulcan erupted and she was instrumental in evacuating the survivors.

The Macdhui came into service in 1931. Although roughly the Montoro’s size, she was much more modern. PIM described her as representing ‘the last word in comfort’, with accommodation for 138 passengers each of whom was supplied with a locker and wardrobe as well as a thermos bottle for iced water. The spacious promenade deck had ‘ample room for deck games and even cricket,’ the magazine marvelled. Native passengers were accommodated away from the Europeans on the ship’s aft ‘tween decks.

And later in the decade the largest of BP’s ships, the Bulolo, was introduced into the Papua New Guinea run. At 6267 tons, she had room for 223 first- and 16 second-class passengers. There were two deluxe staterooms, both with their own bathrooms. Again, the aft ‘tween decks was the place for the natives. In addition to passengers, the Bulolo was able to carry a large amount of space. You’ll see with all of these ships, by the way, that they are all carrying cranes and derricks, which is obviously for freight.

If the trans-Pacific liners and the ships on the Australia-New Zealand-island runs were the arteries of the South Pacific, then the small vessels of the inter-island trade were its capillaries. BP and its subsidiary BP (South Seas) again dominated the field with some competition from the trading firms of Steamships and Morris, Hedstrom Ltd. Their small ships performed a vital service. As well as providing much-needed stores, they were the only means of transportation out of and back to the pattern of islands - there’s that phrase again - across the South Pacific.

Hal Evans was a boy in the 1920s on the island of Buka where his parents had a plantation. He recalled the trip on BP’s Marsina to boarding school in Sydney:

She was a steam ship, a coal-burner, and most of the time she sailed along, black smoke poured from her funnel and stokers spent long periods down below shovelling coal ... once aboard I found a bunk in a small cabin which I shared with an elderly gentleman who was not too friendly but he got better as the trip progressed. They were good and interesting days for school boys and I always looked forward to the trip ...

Conditions weren’t always so salutary. Nancy Johnston, the wife of a kiap or patrol officer in Papua in 1947 described her first experiences:

As a young naïve girl from a non-drinking, swear free family, and the only female on the Doma, I spent a week travelling from Moresby to Samarai with men who profoundly swore and constantly drank alcohol; and then spent an overnight trip, again the only female, on the Matarani from Samarai to Misima on the trawler’s hatch with 26 scantily clad indigenous men, and their livestock ... the toilet facility was a seat swung out over the side of the vessel, in full view of them.

Among the shipping notices in January 1935 was a brief item that promised that aeroplanes would leave Salamaua and Lae in New Guinea two and three times daily for the Morobe goldfields. This notice presaged future trouble for many of the ships delivering passengers and cargo throughout the region. It would have been difficult to forecast the impact of air travel in 1935, however, and it would take the catastrophe of the Second World War to really awaken people to the potential of flight over sea travel.

By 1957, considerable change had taken place. PIM’s January issue showed the beginning of what we would call globalisation as the ports of the Pacific were now by and large included in the network of world transportation. Some of the lines that operated in the region pre-war remained, while others had disappeared - a result of damage to shipping and markets brought about by the fighting. The January 1950 issue of PIM had listed only seven ships sailing that month into the Pacific, which attests to the war’s lengthy impact. By 1957, however, conditions had improved, as this table illustrates [slide shown].

New players included the Orient Line, which had introduced three of its liners, each of more than 23,000 tons, on the cross-Pacific route. Its largest ship, the Oriana, of nearly 42,000 tons was being built and later would be employed on the Australia to North America run. And from 1960 it, with another ship, the Canberra, continued that route for some time long after other types of trans-oceanic passenger voyaging had been replaced.

Air travel’s impact was also beginning to be seen, particularly with regard to sailing to the islands from Australia and New Zealand and some of the inter-island services. Again, the industry was dominated by BP and the Union Line. The war had mixed effects on both company’s operations. On the one hand, a number of ships had been lost, including BP’s Macdhui, bombed by Japanese airplanes in harbour in Port Moresby in 1942. Both had ships requisitioned for troop and related transport and the Bulolo took a prominent position at all Allied landings in the Western Hemisphere, including D-Day. Other ships were damaged. This is a picture of the Malaita after it had taken a hit from a torpedo [image shown]. The impact on copra and other plantations in the islands was devastating. On the other hand, especially for BP with its network of trade stores, the arrival of multitudes of service personnel proved a bonanza.

A new arrival by 1957 was the New Guinea Australia Line. This line was a part of the China Navigation Co., which had first entered the South Pacific in 1939 to take over copra freight from Norddeutscher Lloyd’s Friderun. In 1950, the New Guinea Australia Line or NGAL was established. With only BP operating the routes between Australia and Papua New Guinea there was ample room for a competitor, it was thought.

The NGAL operated three ships out of Sydney: the Shansi, the Sinkiang and the Soochow. This is actually a picture of the Sinkiang [image shown]. All were around 3000 tons and were intended to carry both freight and passengers. The arrival of NGAL stirred the pot of competition with BP, which had until that time enjoyed almost exclusive rights, including to berthing at wharves and to the bulk of the copra trade. One way that NGAL positioned itself against BP was through its involvement in the business of recruiting labourers for the British Phosphate Commission. Of its ships, the Sinkiang was best suited to this trade, with room for passengers as well as for bulk storage, which was useful for carrying the phosphate from Nauru and Ocean Island on the return trip to Australia. That’s a picture of a ship at Nauru being loaded with phosphate [image shown].

Peter Small, who I’ve interviewed, served as an officer on the Sinkiang. He’s told me of the voyages into the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, as far as east as the Line Islands, where Sinkiang collected young men to take on the unpleasant work in the phosphate island. On reaching the atoll the ship had to drift off the ocean side while boats operated between it and the shore carrying the men as well as stores and goods. I should say here that I’m indebted to Peter Small for these photographs, which he took while on a number of recruiting trips to the Gilbert Islands. I’m also indebted to him for some film footage. Basically the ship was not able to anchor. It would drift off the ocean side of the atoll where they would begin the process of unloading some freight into the ships [film played].

The welcome was always effusive, and all Europeans who came ashore were bodily carried through the surf in order to avoid getting their long socks and shoes wet. Now this will take a little while, so we might just sit back and watch [film played]. I love this footage. This is all coming from the late 50s. Peter had a 16 mm film camera, which he took, and indeed a lot of the people I’ve spoken to had film, but he’s taken the trouble to convert it onto a DVD which he’s lent me a copy of, and we’re seeing bits of today. In fact there are other bits which I wish I’d copied, which included people sailing canoes from that time, which would have been marvellous. So these are obviously freight items, stores items and goods items coming ashore.

There’s the Sinkiang as you can see, sort of drifting on the ocean side. I was intrigued that they didn’t come in on the lagoon side, but I understand that there wasn’t enough depth to be able to do that.

Now, finally, the last bit of footage that I’m going to use hopefully - is that of phosphate. What was happening at Nauru - I hope nobody gets motion sick because you might with this footage, but it’s just showing some of the devastation that he saw back in the late 1950s. Gilbertese men were being recruited to work for two-year stints on Nauru and Ocean Island. They were being collected by the Sinkiang and returned back to their islands two years later. Of course it resembled, and does still resemble, a moonscape.

In other respects, air travel was replacing small inter-island vessels as well as making inroads into the service from Australia and New Zealand. By January 1957 there were regular flights through the islands and those seeking to travel from Australia or New Zealand could take a variety of routes. Flying, like high-end sea travel before the war, remained an expensive option. A first-class return flight from Sydney to San Francisco calling at South Pacific ports cost 562 pounds, or worth about $48, 000 in today’s dollar. A tourist class return flight to Port Moresby from Sydney cost 83 pounds, which again is worth about $5500 today. Regardless of that though, the share of the market taken by aviation in 1957 didn’t augur well for the future viability of passenger shipping.

By the end of the 1950s a series of challenges meant that the days of local shipping and of relatively small vessels was coming to an end. The arrival of air services, including those operating within Papua New Guinea, meant a decline in the number of people voyaging around the islands. The economic changes taking place also required larger and more specifically constructed vessels, with the technology to load and unload more freight more rapidly.

The connectivity with the rest of the world, observed in the shipping notice in Pacific Islands Monthly, meant that larger ships were sailing through the region, offering a challenge to local operators. In particular, Burns, Philp, which had hitherto enjoyed dominance, became increasing marginalised. It sold the Bulolo and the Malaita in 1964 and withdrew entirely from shipping later in the decade. Some people may know the sad post-script that the BP store in Port Moresby, which had stood since 1912 and was in the process of being quite well-renovated, burnt to the ground in less than two hours last week.

While it would be premature to see the arrival of the threats by the 1960s as the end of an era, I believe the nature of voyaging in the South Pacific was moving away from the romance of the small inter-island vessels and the larger but still workman-like ships that carried people into the ‘wonder isles of the South Seas’. The voyages of our Pacific ancestors continue to this day. While they may have moved away from the central position they occupied during the middle part of last century, the voyages that were made between 1930 and 1960 in Coral Seas remain an important part of our history of engagement in the South Pacific. I will just provide some suggestions for further reading on this slide:

[References listed on the slide were:
K. Buckley & K. Klugman, “The Australian Presence in the Pacific”: Burns Philp 1914-1946, Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1983.
Howard Dick, ed., In Coral Seas: The History of the New Guinea Australia Line, based on the manuscript by Martin Speyer, with additional material by Mike Carolin, Melbourne: The Nautical Association of Australia, Inc., 2004.
Frederick Emmons, Pacific Liners 1927-72, Melbourne: Wren Publishing Pty Ltd, 1973.
Brett Hilder, Navigator in the South Seas, London: Percival Marshall & Co., 1961.
The B.P. Magazine, Sydney: Burns, Philp & Co.
The Log (Quarterly Journal of the Nautical Association of Australia, Inc.), Melbourne.
Pacific Islands Monthly, Sydney: Pacific Publications.
Una Voce: Papua New Guinea – Insights, Experiences, Reminiscences (Quarterly journal of the Papua New Guinea Australia Association), Sydney: PNGAA.]

JENNY NEWELL: Thank you for that fascinating presentation. We do have time for some questions.

QUESTION: Thank you, Jonathan, My name is Frances. All the ships you’re talking about are quite diverse, from the big liners to the regional inter-island ferries, so to speak. I was wondering if any of your sources can tell us anything about the way Indigenous people may have been using these new vessels in old ways and making their own circuits like they used to.

JONATHAN:  That’s a very good question, Frances, and I don’t actually have an answer. The reason I don’t have an answer - apart from perhaps I should have looked at it – is I don’t think there’s a lot there. There’s very little in the way of literature. You may have found this yourself with your work on union life.

I guess I’m really beginning this inquiry, and I think it’s an area that’s worth while investigating. And further to Sela’s point, I suspect there is a real sense that people were using the network of European owned and run - well, of course, they weren’t all run, many of them were sailed and staffed by people in the Islands.

I think also the reference, as you find quite often in what literature there is, to accommodation for natives on the Burns, Philp ships for example, which is usually just a one-liner. They might rave about the stateroom accommodations for the Europeans, et cetera, does suggest there was a pretty ready use of those. The fares that I’ve quoted are often at the top end. I suspect a space in the ‘tween decks between Port Moresby and Rabaul wasn’t necessarily going to cost that much. Maybe there are people here who can answer that question better than I can, yourself included.

QUESTION: (Frances) I just wanted to say that I went on the Malaita in 1959 up the east coast. At the front of the ship I could sit out there. But from Port Moresby around to Samarai and up to Rabaul, many of the local peoples were sleeping on deck with all their goods and so on. I just wanted to ask you also about 1930s to Ocean Island. My mother went up there in 1933, my mother and father. It was very similar to what you were recording. There was quite a network of people who were working there going backwards and forwards.

JONATHAN RITCHIE: Thank you. Pre-war, BPs tended to do some of that recruiting work. I’ve touched only very slightly on BPs. That’s a whole area that people could explore much more fully. It’s just enough to say though that, because of BP’s connections with shipping, trading, plantations and a whole range of tentacles, as people have described it, in the Pacific, they ran into competition and difficulties with the British Phosphate Commission [BPC]. You might have noticed one of the tables I showed before included that BPC did its own shipping to and from Nauru and Ocean Island. Again, it’s another fascinating area to talk about.

QUESTION:  My name is Guy Pilkington. I worked at Nadi airport in Fiji for eight years in the 1950s and 1960s. One of the things that I think is overlooked about the Pacific as far as aviation is concerned is that, while there were land planes operating between Australia and Fiji and so on, and in particular the route before the jets was Sydney, Nadi, Canton Island, and then on to Hawai’i. The reason was because they didn’t have the capacity to load fuel. But the thing I wanted to draw you attention to was that there was a romantic period in the Pacific that was played out finally in the Pacific with the flying boats. The Pacific was the last place in the world to use flying boats. In particular, there was a base at what is now the University of South Pacific where the Royal New Zealand Air Force had their flying boats, and they were the last ones to fly in the world.

Now there were in the earlier period post-war flying boats flying across the Tasman between Sydney and Auckland, and these were owned by Tasman Empire Airways Ltd, a New Zealand-Australia amalgam at that time. But the real thing is that the RNZAF flew immensely important flights all around the Pacific doing mercy missions. There are some incredible stories of that period which are worth following up.

JONATHAN RITCHIE: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. There are so many stories. My brother – who is sitting up the back there - and I grew up in Port Moresby. I can remember, and I’m sure he can remember better than I, flying boats on Fairfax Harbour in Moresby in the early 1960s.

QUESTION: (Hank Nelson) Just a connection of the two papers. You will have noticed that Jonathan spoke about being born in Papua New Guinea, and in the statistics that Sela provided of 50 years of migration into Australia, she carefully said that is by birthplace. So from 1947 to 1998 when she gave a figure which was about 20,000 or 30,000 Papua New Guineans had come to Australia, then Jonathan is in those statistics.


QUESTION: What was happening was that there were about 20,000 Australians in Papua New Guinea. They’re nearly all in that demographic group that are having children. So there’s quite a lot of what we would think of as Australian children being born in Papua New Guinea and coming back to Australia, as the Australian population in New Guinea drops from around 20,000 to 5000 - a sharp drop - so nearly all of those are Australians.

The other significant group in that statistic are the Chinese. Sela rightly pointed out the end of the White Australia Policy in 1973, but before that, even in the 1950s, Australia had made the decision to give Australian citizenship to the Chinese who were long residents of Papua New Guinea. So a lot of Chinese who were born in Papua New Guinea come into Australia with that birthplace mentioned. Sorry, that was a long comment.

One more comment, and then another point. One of the interesting things that was often said by lonely plantation managers in particular in Papua New Guinea who were living there without their wives and their young is that they don’t see a white woman for months and months. The plantation dream was of this Burns, Philp boat calling in and on board was this crowd of single, frustrated school teachers from Australia desperately in search of eligible men, and the boat anchored off shore and stayed while the copper was being loaded. Then that night there was the availability of these 30 or 40 spinster teachers. I always thought this was one of these magical dreams of lonely, frustrated men who were periodically suffering from malaria. But indeed in the advertisements, as Jonathan has probably found, there are targeted advertisements to Australian school teachers to make the round trip through the islands so the plantation dream was indeed realisable.

The 1930s, when you put up the slide of the ships, one thing was missing from there - I guess it’s missing because one of the groups of ships was a Japanese company owned, but it was quite common in the 1930s, to my surprise, to see the number of Australians who went north. That is Bulolo gold miners who were relatively very well paid – these are people working on the dredges - would take their leave and go to Japan, Hong Kong, and so on. There was that shipping connection connecting PNG north, and the Japanese one was often in the news because we were alert and worried about that Japanese connection and those Japanese ships that were calling at the Papua New Guinea ports.

JONATHAN:  Thank you, Hank, yes, that’s fantastic - a lot I could say but I won’t.

JENNY NEWELL: Thank you very much everyone for coming today and for giving us your extra time as well. Can we please have another big round of grateful applause for our wonderful speakers. Thank you. [applause]

Date published: 14 August 2009