The blindness of belief

George Skinner liked things to be in order and be predictable, and heaven knows this was hardly the situation he now found himself in. He had been in Patlangat Plantation on the west coast of New Ireland for four hours, having arrived by boat early in the morning from Rabaul. As soon as the small inter-island copra boat dropped anchor, he sensed that something was wrong. There was no crowd to greet the arrival of the vessel and he saw no copra bags stacked up on the foreshore ready for loading. He was rowed ashore in a small dingy and he asked the one native he saw where the manager of the plantation was. This individual pointed towards the plantation house a few hundred yards away. Skinner’s ability to communicate with the New Guineans was limited to those who could understand English as he had only been in the Territory for a month. He lingered before walking to the house and for some reason he had a feeling of apprehension. A dread of something, he knew not what, and out of character with his usual habit, he lit a cigarette and smoked before he had eaten anything.

            Skinner was a man in his fifties and was of middle height. He generally took the conventional approach to things. His job working for WR Carpenter & Co Ltd as an inspector of plantations seemed anything but conventional, though his employment history was fairly ordinary. He was born in the English county of Derbyshire and as a young lad, joined the London office of Morris Hedstrom & Co as a clerk. The company was a plantation and trading firm operating in the islands of Fiji. This was shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. During the war he was in the army service corps in the ranks. After the war he approached Morris Hedstrom & Co to get his old job back. He was told that there was nothing in London but there was a plantation position in Fiji as an assistant if he wanted it.

            In Fiji he did quite well. He was a man of sober habits and he managed to rise steadily in the company from plantation assistant to plantation inspector. When Morris Hedstrom & Co was taken over by WR Carpenter & Co in the late 1950s, he was transferred from Suva to Rabaul, retaining his position as a plantation inspector. His transfer was made with little fuss as he had never married and had no immediate family.

               After finishing his cigarette, Skinner walked the short distance to the house, passing the labour quarters on the way. There he was joined by a New Guinean from the Sepik who was a contract worker on the plantation. The contract worker told Skinner that the Masta had not been seen for a few days. The plantation dwelling was a substantial building in the Queensland style constructed on piles and elevated off the ground. Steps gave entrance to the house. On entering the house, Skinner noticed an unpleasant smell and the general untidiness of the place. The house was full of blow flies and empty bottles. In the living room, overlooking the Bismarck Sea, clothes were strewn around the room and a terrible smell seemed to be coming from the next room. Skinner went across and opened the door. The room was darkened because curtains had been drawn across the large open shutters but there was sufficient light to make out a body hanging by a rope from the ceiling beams.

            Skinner called out to Pita, the Sepik labourer, to help him and they cut the body down. The corpse had gone beyond rigor mortis and had started to decay. Skinner estimated that death had occurred at least four days previously. Pita told him that this was the body of Jack Jones, the plantation manager. Skinner hurriedly scribbled a note to the captain of the boat he arrived on, to come to the house as a tragedy had occurred.

            The captain soon arrived and greeted Skinner with these words: “George, bloody hell, this place smells like rotten fish in a rundown Chinese brothel.” “I wouldn’t know about that,” replied Skinner, “but things are much more serious.” Skinner then showed him the body and for a moment the captain was lost for words.

            Captain Albert Forrester was the skipper of the Theresia, a motor vessel of seventy or eighty tons. He was a plump man who looked the worse for wear. During the war he had run small ships around New Guinea and afterwards he had just stayed on in a variety of positions on vessels around Papua New Guinea. On this occasion he acted decisively. He went straight back to the ship and reported to Rabaul by radio.  In the meantime Skinner sent word to all the workers to assemble. The bosboi or foreman, Simogun, told him that the plantation had been pretty much in chaos for the last week. No rations had been given out and work had come to a standstill.

            Forrester had got through to Rabaul and told Skinner that a government vessel would be leaving Rabaul almost at once and should arrive sometime in the evening or early next morning. Skinner then concentrated on getting the plantation back to some semblance of order. Rations were issued and work allocated. The plantation house was cleaned up and Jones’s body covered and put in a makeshift coffin. What copra there was, was loaded on the Theresia. Skinner could not see any reason why Captain Forrester and his vessel should remain, so after the vessel was loaded, the order was given to up anchor and away it went on its scheduled voyage.

            Jones’s domestic staff had returned to the house and Skinner made arrangements to camp in the living room. Jones’s body had been moved to a back shed. By this time it was late afternoon and Skinner treated himself to a stiff whisky, after which he had a meal of bully beef and bread that he had brought from Rabaul. Skinner felt that he had done all that was necessary and now he could only await the arrival of the government vessel and the investigation into Jones’s death.

            Skinner was conventional in his life style and work practices but intellectually he was anything but ordinary. He read widely in literature and philosophy. Shortly after arriving in Fiji, he had embarked on an extensive self-education reading programme. He read the great Elizabethans – Shakespeare, Spenser, Marlowe and subsequent literary periods. He was something of an expert on Tennyson. The Greek and Roman philosophers had stimulated his interest in modern philosophy and he was now reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Existentialist philosophy, he felt, explained much of present day life. Skinner suspected that Sartre would consider suicide dispassionately and not condemn it out of hand. From an existentialist view, life is ‘absurd’ anyway and this largely accorded with Skinner’s thoughts. Jones’s death, he concluded, must have been suicide. This was a stark reality in contrast to the beautiful approaching tropical evening. Skinner felt at peace with himself but unquestionably Jones had not.

            Jones’s domestic staff wanted to clean up more around the house but Skinner thought it better to wait until the government vessel arrived from Rabaul. He decided to retire early and he showered and went to bed on a camp stretcher in the living room. The smell around the house had abated since the body had been moved.

            Early the next morning he was awakened with the call: Masta, sip i anka i stap. (The ship is lying at anchor). Shortly afterwards three white men arrived at the house. Harry Carruthers, the District Officer, was accompanied by David Hobhouse, a police sub-inspector, and Dr Roger Charing, a medical officer. Introductions were quickly made and Skinner took them all to Jones’s body. Dr Charing examined it thoroughly. He could find nothing to suggest that Jones’s death was anything other than suicide. He found the hyoid bone in the neck intact but strangulation was consistent with a simple obstruction of the airway caused by the rope that was still around his neck. In his report he concluded that Jones had died by his own hand four or five days previously. He recommended immediate burial. Carruthers and Hobhouse accepted the doctor’s recommendation and Skinner arranged to have Jones buried.

            Carruthers and Hobhouse interviewed a number of the plantation workers and about all they could find out was that for the last week or so Jones had not been seen around the plantation. Jones’s domestic staff said that he had been drinking heavily. Back in the plantation house Skinner and the officials reached the conclusion that this was another case of a white man gone ‘troppo’. Jones had lost it and Skinner could not help wondering why.

            The interment of Jones’s remains and the formalities were finalised and the officials decided to return to Rabaul. Skinner remained on the plantation to await the arrival of a newly appointed manager. Normally an investigation into a death would have been conducted from Kavieng, as the plantation was in the New Ireland District but in this case a quicker response could be mounted from Rabaul and being the death of a white man the authorities opted for Rabaul to handle matters.

            It would fall to Skinner to write to Jones’s relations in Sydney and he wondered what he would say. At this stage he had no idea why Jones had killed himself. In his experience of life, Skinner had found that tragedy was often associated with sex, money and religion, with one or all three playing a part. He wondered what, if anything, these factors had contributed to Jones’s death. Being of a philosophical turn of mind, Skinner determined in his own quiet way to try and understand why Jones committed suicide. He did not know what sexual problems Jones might have had but there was talk among his domestic staff that he was visited regularly by a young woman from the nearby village. Young white men on the plantations did not usually have money problems as in their relatively isolated situations they were usually able to save most of their salaries. Skinner could not detect any signs of misappropriation by Jones in the plantation stores and accounts. Jones was said to have been a follower of the Church of Christian Science but not a fanatical believer. Skinner found out from the plantation workers that it was not always satisfactory to seek treatment from Jones for medical complaints like fevers as he was not keen to give out medicines.

            While he was pondering Jones’s demise, Skinner was visited by the village headman or luluai from the nearby village and what he had to say explained quite a lot. It appeared that Jones had been carrying on for some time with a village woman and she had given birth to his child some months previously. Recently the child had become sick with what was probably malaria and the mother had brought the child to Jones for treatment. It seemed that Jones had not given the child any anti-malaria tablets but only told the mother to sponge the baby with cold water and in time the fever would go. The child died and when Jones heard this, he went to his house and stayed there, eventually killing himself.

            Skinner wondered about Jones’s state of mind. Did he become disillusioned with his religious beliefs when he realised that his child had died without life-saving medicine? Perhaps this was what had driven him to suicide. Skinner said to himself: “There you are, human tragedy is always associated in some ways with sex, money and religion. Perhaps money did not figure in Jones’s case.”

            A week later, a young man arrived from Rabaul to take over the management of the plantation and Skinner handed over the plantation’s affairs and returned to Rabaul.


1 Comment

  1. arthur williams said,

    Just found this yarn Dave. Liked it
    Sort of thing that happened around PNG; pity some unrecorded

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