Colonial conditioning

October 22, 2007 at 12:03 am (Short Story) ()

Adrian McKinnon, looking back in time said to himself: “I do regret meeting Jansen.”                 

      The meeting took place over half a century ago, in the District of New Ireland in the Territory of Papua New Guinea, on a copra plantation south of the small town, Namatanai, on the East Coast.

     The plantation was planted before the First World War by a Belgian national and unlike the surrounding plantations was not expropriated by the Australian authorities after the war, because it was not German owned. Subsequently, the Belgian sold the plantation to New Guinea Company, a subsidiary company in the WR Carpenter corporate body.

      Charles Jansen was New Guinea Company’s plantation manager, a man of Burgher descent from Ceylon, who had been living in the Territory for the past four years. The plantation was not on particularly productive land and the palms were coming to the end of their economic worth but it still was able to sustain a force of about 150 workers and produce sufficient copra, to make it a worthwhile concern for New Guinea Company.

      Jansen was suffering at the time with gallbladder disease and he informed the Company that he would have to go to Australia for an operation and he wanted a relieving manager while he was away.

       McKinnon duly arrived to act as relieving manager. A man in his early twenties and still to all intensive purposes a rather callow youth, while Jansen in his early forties was a manipulative and brutal man who went to great lengths to create a persona of himself as a full-blooded British colonial.

        Jansen’s proclivity for physical violence towards the labourers was borne out in the frequently dished out backhanders, he gave to workers, who in some way did not measure up to what he wanted. McKinnon observed this and in his naivety thought that this is the way things should be done. The brutal aspects of plantation life were not entirely foreign to McKinnon as he had seen a bit of this in plantations in Papua and he had been lead to believe that this was the way native labour should be controlled.

       McKinnon arrived on the plantation, on a small ship from Rabaul which was to be loaded with copra, after leaving him. When loading operations were finished, Jansen and McKinnon walked through the coconut palms to the plantation bungalow.

        On meeting McKinnon, Jansen seemed pleased enough with him and on reaching the bungalow he instructed his domestic staff to serve lunch, which consisted of massive amounts of rice with a fish curry and vegetables cooked in coconut milk. He informed McKinnon: “I’ve at last succeeded in teaching that lot in the kitchen to cook a decent curry. In Ceylon, we always had trained staff, a butler and a chef but alas the Australians have no idea how to train staff.” McKinnon was most impressed with Jansen’s apparent air of sophistication and almost immediately came under his influence.

         Jansen prided himself on running the plantation with what he thought was military precision. He stood at about 5’10” and during the day dressed in khaki shorts, shirt, wearing a slough hat, longs socks and boots. He always carried a stout cane or kanda, which he not infrequently used on workers he was displeased with. On one occasion, McKinnon saw him severely beat a bosboi, a foreman of a gang of grass cutters merely because he was unhappy with the work they were doing. In explanation after, he said, his gallbladder was playing up and this was known to cause a loss of temper. He considered himself medically knowledgeable claiming to have done three years medicine in the UK. Young Adrian was further impressed with this and with his supposed diploma of tropical agriculture from Jamaica.

      Charles Jansen seemed to live life under a sense of threat. The analogy of an army under siege was the perception of his life situation he liked to portray: “Like Field Marshal Slim I’ll turn defeat into victory.”

        Parcels came from Ceylon addressed to Captain Jansen. On his right leg the shin bone had been broken and had obviously been poorly set, an injury, Jansen claimed, he received during the War in Europe, when he stepped on a German land mine. After being wounded he was taken prisoner by the Germans and his life was saved by the skill of a German Surgeon. A dramatic story, true or not, who would know, but Adrian was awed.

        In the course of handing the plantation, or estate, the preferred word for Jansen, over, he impressed on Adrian that all the machines were to be kept in perfect order. The Ferguson tractor was to be regularly painted and the motorbike kept clean. He claimed an expertise with motorbikes having taken part in the Great Motorbike Road Race on the Isle of Man. The way things appeared was very important to Jansen and obvious spots around the plantation were always kept clean and tidy. For instance the grass along the main road going through the plantation was always kept cut.

         Jansen’s descriptions of the sexual antics of some of the other Australian planters were somewhat amusing. According to him, one village women of loose virtue made the claim that: Mi save kok bilong olgeta man, masta,na Saina, na olkain kanaka. I know the genitals of lots of men, whites, Chinese and village men. The native women of New Ireland had a reputation of being rather obliging. Jansen maintained that mainland contract labour loved to work on New Ireland. White men carrying on with natives he found distasteful, or this is what he said. He had some story about falling in love with a beautiful Indian doctor in Ceylon, but if the truth be known, he did not seem too interested in women. A British colonial according to him: “must always be dignified. One could not maintain one’s dignity and drink.” He did not drink alcohol, at least not in public. A psychologist might think that he feared alcohol because by imbibing he could let his guard down and reveal his real self. McKinnon found a bottle of brandy and he asked Jansen about it. “I use it only for medicinal purposes.” He said.

           Jansen’s reputation with the Sub-District Office was to say the least rather poor. He had already been charged with two counts of assault and found guilty on both. If he were to be found guilty again he faced the danger of being deported from the Territory. Of this, he said: “The law has little to do with justice.”

           In conservation Jansen affected a unique brand of English pronunciation by stressing syllables in unusual places. Thus in ‘mechanic’ the last syllable was stressed and in ‘diploma’ the first syllable. This gave a disharmony and jerky flow, on occasions, to his speech. He was not impressed with what he perceived to be the indiscipline of the Australian troops during the War.  Telling a story of being an officer commanding a group of Australians on a troop ship, he challenged a digger for not coming on deck when the bugle sounded. The soldier apparently replied: “My bowels don’t answer to the sound of a bugle.”

           The process of handing the plantation over took about a week and Jansen left, after giving detailed instructions on the care of the horse. The horse was ridden to inspect work around the property. A vessel, after loading copra, took Jansen to Rabaul, on his way to Brisbane for his operation.

           McKinnon was now left on his own, to manage the plantation, but Jansen had left him still largely under his influence. The management may have improved slightly in relation to the treatment of the workers. The tractor was always kept clean and the grass cut in open areas. The motorbike was not ridden and was only started and polished. Adrian kept his distance from the village people and like Charles before they were kept away from the reef in front of the plantation, even if they wanted to fish. He very rarely left to visit nearby Namatanai. He did have some social contact with the manager of a Burns Philip plantation to the South. As for arranging some sort of relationship with a local village girl, this was never seriously contemplated. The Australian Administration had a rather ambivalent attitude to liaisons of whites with natives. Officially they were frowned on and whites could be deported if the Native Women’s Protection Ordinance was in any way contravened, but relationships, if discretely carried out, were more or less ignored. In the old days of German New Guinea most of the single planters quite openly had their natives mistresses, subsequently the Australians followed the same practice but not so openly. The Germans had a reputation of being harsh but in matters of sexual conduct they were much more realistic than the Australians. The official attitude of the Australian Administration to sexual contacts with the locals was grounded on racism and puritanical nonconformist Methodist views, which did not really protect the local women from exploitation but only tended to hide what went on.

            In five months, Jansen returned after his successful gallstone operation and proceeded to find fault with everything that McKinnon had done while he was away. The fact that his domestic staff had cleared out just before he returned did not put him in a good humour. The copra drier had been rebuilt and he reluctantly conceded that this was a good job. But most of what took place after he left he disapproved of. Anyhow, one thing lead to another, and he refused to accept the return of the plantation to his management, by signing the cash book, but he did give McKinnon a cheque for some personal goods that he had been paid for when he left, a wireless, kerosene refrigerator and kitchen utensils. McKinnon left and arranged to have his gear moved to Namatanai and caught a vessel to Rabaul.

              On arriving in Rabaul, he reported to New Guinea Company and explained what had happened. The Company Director told him to wait in Rabaul until they had heard from Jansen. In the meantime, he went to the Bank of New South Wales to cash Jansen’s cheque. The bank informed him that Jansen had stopped the cheque, whereupon, McKinnon went straight to a well known solicitor, Warner Walls, who was practising in Rabaul, at this time. Walls sent Jansen a radiogram along these lines: Unless you allow your cheque in favour of my client, Adrian McKinnon, he intends to take legal action against you. Warner Walls               On the same day a radiogram was sent to the solicitor from Jansen: Cheque allowed, I also intend to take legal action against your client. Charles Jansen

               To make a long story short there was no legal action from Jansen and he informed the Company that the plantation books were in order.

                Adrian decided that he needed a holiday and he went South on a Burns Philip ship, but unfortunately, this is not the end of the Jansen/McKinnon encounter. They were to meet again some years after to the disadvantage of McKinnon.

         The expatriates in the inlands were a mixed bag of saints and sinners and many things in between. Because of the nature of the Territory, before independence,  most tended to be big fish in a small pond and whatever they did tended to create waves.

The Territory was the making of many but equally the destruction of many.

This is just another stori long taim bilong masta, a tale from colonial times.


1 Comment

  1. Meet Singles » Blog Archive » Colonial conditioning said,

    […] Stories by David Wall wrote an interesting post today on Colonial conditioningHere’s a quick excerpt Adrian McKinnon, looking back in time said to himself: “I do regret meeting Jansen.”                        The meeting took place over half a century ago, in the District of New Ireland in the Territory of Papua New Guinea, on a copra plantation south of the small town, Namatanai, on the East Coast.      The plantation was planted before the […]

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