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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Memories of New Guinea

Ragnar Lindahl, previously Swedish Consul to New Guinea from 1926 until the early 1930s, with his son Patrick Lindahl at home in Sweden


My webpage on the Torres Strait's German Harry got a response from Patrick Lindahl in Sweden whose father had lived and worked and was then the Swedish Consul to New Guinea.

He then sent me the following translation of a Swedish newspaper article about another Swede who had been every bit as colourful a character as German Harry:

Ragnar Lindahl in New Guinea


Pelle from Brynäs owned 32,000 coconut trees

"A couple of weeks ago, I told the story about a girl from Gävle in Sweden, Jessica Simpson, who in in the 1920s became queen of an island in New Guinea. On a neighbouring small island lived another Swede, the plantation owner Pelle Kyllert, who also came from Gävle.

Kyllert had made a fortune growing and exporting coconuts but then, in WW2, his home and plantation were destroyed by the Japanese. In late 1946 he was interviewed by the explorer and journalist Rolf Blomberg who thought the twenty years Kyllert spent among pearl fishers, gold diggers, missionaries and misfits were just the sort of stuff adventure stories are made of.

In fact, Pelle Kyllert himself had planned to write a book about his adventures but could only do so from the diaries he had kept during all those years as his memories had started to fail him. He had hidden the diaries in a cave close to the plantation but termites had probably eaten them since or the natives had found them and used them as cigarette paper.

By then, Pelle Kyllert, living in Sydney and aged 64 but feeling much older after the many years spent in the jungle, was still hoping to return New Guinea. The price of copra had gone up and he thought it worth his while to restore his devastated plantation.

He was born Per Larsson in 1881 in Brynäs in Sweden where his father Josef was a tailor. When he was 17, he left his parents and ten brothers and sisters and went to Hamburg where started work as shop assistant. He stayed a couple of years during which time he learned fluent German before going to England from where he took a ship to South America.

But quite soon he was back in Gävle where he worked as a wholesaler in tobacco. Then, in 1912, he went to Stockholm where, together with his brother John, he started a factory manufacturing chocolates and candy. The brothers named the company Kyller which eventually became his name.

Even though the company was profitable, after ten years Pelle got itchy feet again. Somehow he befriended Kalle Pettersson from Sollentuna who had become 'King' of the tiny island of Tabar in New Guinea and was visiting Sweden in 1922 to marry Jessie Simpson from Gävle before returning to his tropical kingdom. 'King' Pettersson thought Kyllert should join him and so, two years later, Pelle packed up and left for New Guinea.

Among Kyllert's acquaintances was Anders Lindahl, the creator of the soda Pommac, who, apart from being the director of several chemical factories in Sweden, also owned a plantation named 'Stockholm' on the island of New Britain which was managed by his son Ragnar Lindahl. This plantation was not far from Pettersson's 'kingdom' and so this is were Kyllert went.

He liked it there and when Ragnar Lindahl returned to Sweden in 1931 (or 1933), Kyllert took over the plantation consisting of 32,000 coconut trees and bought some more land on a nearby island. Business was going well and Pelle - or Peter, as he was called in New Guinea - was soon a wealthy man. Then WW2 started and the Japanese occupied Rabaul on the 23rd of January 1942.

Kyllert's plantation was nearby but when he showed his Swedish passport, the Japanese assured him that nothing would happen to him. In July of that year, a Japanese patrol came with orders to take him to a detention camp but because of his age - he was then 59 - and his poor health he was allowed to stay.

Instead, his German-born wife whom he had married in New Guinea was harshly interrogated by the Japanese Kempei-tai, the equivalent of Germany's Gestapo. Their suspicion was aroused because he hadn't reported the landing of a seaplane offshore from his plantation, presumably to disembark spies. From then on there were daily visits by the Japanese to his plantation.

As Pelle Kyllert said in later years, "They were arrogant and unpleasant and they took away anything of any value and anything that could be eaten. It became harder and harder for us to exist and we lost weight terribly. My wife in a very short time lost one-third of her weight and I became so weak that I had to stay in bed most of the time."

When the Allies attacked Rabaul one year later, Kyllert's home was in the middle of the fire. With some native servants they fled into the jungle where they stayed in primitive huts, were short of food and lived in constant fear of being captured or hit by bombs.

On the 15th of August 1944 they were visited by a couple of Australians. Airplane pilots, was his first thought and he invited them in. "Come in! How can we help you? We must find some shelter for you!"

They smiled. "We have come to rescue you", one of the said.

"Rescue us? We have large Japanese forces around us. How can you rescue us?"

"Do you have any boats?"

Of course, Kyllert had secretly been building some boats which would be ready in a few days' time. When the boats were ready, the Australians returned and under of darkness they went out in five canoes. After some hours, they landed near a small camp which had a secret radio transmitter. The following evening they continued and, after a day's paddling, came to another camp which was out of Japanese range.

Kyllert was exhausted and had to be carried ashore. For the first time in a long time he ate sausages and sandwiches which made him almost sick. After a couple of days' rest, the Kyllerts boarded a ship that took them to the American Military Camp at Cape Closter from where there went to Sydney by air.

At his meeting with Rolf Blomberg at the beginning of 1946, Pelle Kyllert was asked if he wanted to return to Sweden. "Yes, next year", he replied, "if everything goes according to plan and the world is at peace". Peace had come but Kyllert's health deteriorated and just a couple of months later he died in a hospital in Australia without ever seeing his New Guinea plantation or his native Brynäs again."

Anyway, this is the published version. Maybe there are some people out there who can add more details to these interesting memories of pre-Independence Papua New Guinea?