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Friday, March 4, 2022

Farewell to New Guinea

Kieta Harbour, Bougainville Island, in the then Territory of Papua & New Guinea


From the late Brian Darcey's blog: "The day started normally enough on Bougainville Island. Our office in Toniva, a suburb of the small coastal town of Kieta, opened for business at the usual time and I sat down at my desk to check the telex (remember telex?) for overnight messages.

A call from our Papuan store manager from the main cargo wharf was the start of what turned out to be the beginning of the end for B F Darcey & Company, and the signal for our exodus from New Guinea.

"Customs say we can't ship that two tons of trocas for Japan."

"Why not? The export entries are in."

"Something about no more shell exports by non-nationals."

I drove to the wharf and found our shipment of bagged trocas shell resting on pallets with a small crowd of locals gathered around it. Manager Jim was glowering at two unsmiling customs officials, one of whom had a proprietorial foot placed firmly on the nearest bag of trocas.

"The law has changed", I was informed. "Dealing in trocas shell is now only for Papua New Guineans and your business can no longer buy, sell or export it".

A check with Port Moresby confirmed this, and was swiftly followed by an offer from an anonymus caller. "Just heard about your problem. I'm a citizen and I'd be happy to buy the trocas from you." A price of less than half the market value of the shell followed.

Thirty years on, a similar situation would present no problems. In today's New Guinea a discreet bundle of money in a plain envelope would result in removal of whatever the impediment was, but in those early post-Independence times bribery was unheard of.

It was 1978, three years after a reluctant Papua New Guinea had been pitchforked into Independence, ready or not, by the Australian Government, and things were rapidly unravelling.

The more prescient private business owners had already either sold up and moved out of the country or converted their firms to a partnership with one or more of their native staff as majority shareholders. This made the business no longer 'foreign' and it could theoretically continue to trade, unhindered by the increasing number of restrictions on business for those now labelled 'non-nationals'.

Finance for the new part-owners was obtained by way of a government-guaranteed bank loan. The more prudent of the former sole owners lost no time in transferring their money out of the country and usually followed it, leaving the business to be run by what was, more often than not, inexperienced and untrained new management. We had not done this and continued to run our Company as a fully owned family business.

We traded in cocoa, coffee, trocas shell, crocodile skins and other tropical commodities. We owned several commercial buildings at Toniva near the port of Kieta, a fleet of 4-wheel drive vehicles, and a twin-engined aircraft which I flew. We ran a retail store which sold everything from artifacts and carvings to women's clothing and jewellery, and we lived in a house which we had built on the beach at Toniva, a short walk away from the office and stores.

'Head in the sand' accurately describes the mindset of the Darceys and many other expatriates in those post-Independence years. The children, especially our young daughters, in the years immediately before our departure, had been increasingly exposed to aggressive and intimidating behaviour from young males in the streets and elsewhere and they were ready to leave long before their parents.

We were constantly getting unwanted and unpalatable advice to "sell out and get out" from former residents of similar places to Papua New Guinea who had moved there after their lives in Africa and Southeast Asia had been made uncomfortable, unsafe, or both.

We did not listen to them. New Guinea had been home for over 25 years. All four children had been born there, and life was prosperous and enjoyable. Where would we go? Australia was fine for holidays and a good place to send the children for their secondary education, but not a place where we wanted to live.

Those who did move were easy targets for sellers of all kinds of fringe investments in Australia. Macadamia plantations, ti tree farms, avocado orchards and other trendy investment schemes were only some of the means used to separate returning New Guinea residents from their money.

We stayed on, coping with an ever-increasing level of interference from the new Papua New Guinea Government, and a studied refusal to continue anything other than a benevolent 'hands off' by the Australian Government while it continued to send millions of Australian Dollars in untied annual grants to its former Trust Territory.

Life started to unravel very quickly. We finally realised that it really was time to go: that the New Guinea we had known and called home for over 25 years was fast vanishing, and we were no longer welcome.

Panguna, now one of the biggest open-cut mines in the world, was facing rapidly developing opposition from disgruntled Bougainville villagers, overwhelmed by the transformation of their island into an industrial maelstrom of men and machinery; something they had not asked for and did not understand.

Plantations, which continued to produce the copra and cocoa on which the new nation relied to supplement Australian aid dollars were finding the cheap, reliable labour on which these enterprises depended harder to obtain: workers had become less and less amenable to the ordered monotony of plantation life which required the labourer to rise before dawn six days out of seven for two years before returning to the indolent stop-start pattern of village life.

The police force lost almost all its experienced expatriate officers. The force now followed the same pattern as other government departments, rapidly promoting junior officers to senior positions far above their level of experience or competency. For the first time, bribery and corruption started to infiltrate commercial life. It has now become the norm, and very little can be accomplished without it in today's PNG.

By the time the reality of all this had sunk in, the possibility of finding a shadow local partner had come and gone. Banks and other lenders were now very reluctant to finance such arrangements, and the only thing left to do was to sell our physical assets, houses, buildings and vehicles etc.

This was still possible, but it was a buyer's market and values were less than a third of what could have been obtained a few short years previously. The commercial buildings were bought by Hagermeyer, a Dutch trading firm far more experienced in dealing with new Third World governments than I was. Our house went to an Australian bank whose manager lost no time in moving into a far more comfortable home than that formerly provided by his employers. The fleet of vehicles was bought by a local dealer with the exception of my Volvo which was shipped to Australia together with furniture and personal effects including an extensive library of New Guinea and Solomon Islands books and papers. Our leased bulk store was returned to its owners and our aircraft was loaded for a last flight from Kieta to Cairns in North Queensland.

Divested of all its assets, our now unsaleable business was placed in voluntary liquidation and life in New Guinea ended in a mixture of sadness to be leaving and relief at escaping the increasingly hostile and insecure atmosphere which now prevailed.

Was it all worth it? Yes, it was. We should have faced reality and got away sooner, but for all but the last few years, New Guinea gave us a safe, satisfying and adventurous lifestyle with an income far greater than we would probably have achieved in Australia. We had more than enough money to start again in Australia, which begged the question, 'What now?'"


The above was copied from the archived copy of Brian Darcey's website www.darceyco.com. Brian will always owe us his answer to the self-posed question 'what now?' as he passed away on 14 May 2018 in Cairns.

Brian and his family lived in Papua New Guinea for twenty-five years, from 1955 to 1980. He was the Rabaul agent for CRA Exploration when he operated B.F.DARCEY & COMPANY PTY LTD there until 1965, then at Toniva on Bougainville Island. He exported cocoa and trochus shell and also had a store at Toniva selling artifacts, jewellery, clothing etc.

I briefly stayed with him on his yacht TEKANI II in Cairns a few years earlier - see here and here -, and I am sure he would have liked me to preserve his writings. He is the author of "Bougainville Blue" - see here.


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