Kenneth Hewitson Thomas (1904-1973)
Kenneth Hewitson Thomas
Barry Craig, 27 Feb. 2023
Kenneth Thomas arrived in Rabaul in May 1927 as a Cadet Patrol Officer of the Territory of New Guinea administration and was posted to Aitape in November. In April the following year he was sent to “hold the fort” at Wutung, on the border with then Dutch New Guinea, while the resident officer went on leave. ‘This job of sitting down and “holding the fort” . . . is tiring. It’s hard to find anything to do.’ (Thomas Archive File 2, p.16) Noting the presence of ‘Jim Crow’ in the trees, he asked himself: ‘I wonder, at times, if he’s just a stranger in a strange land, like me, or whether he does really belong . . .’. (ibid, p.22)
Kenneth Thomas, 1904-1973. SA Museum AA336. Place, date and photographer not known.
Thomas served in the coastal Sepik area from 1927 to 1934, based at Vanimo, Aitape, Wewak and, for a brief period, at Marienberg on the lower Sepik River during which he met Reo Fortune, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. He carried out numerous patrols along the north coastal strip and into the coastal ranges. He was the first Australian government officer (though not necessarily the first European) to visit certain villages and appears to have been one of the earliest collectors of ethnographic material in the hinterland regions of Aitape and Wewak (Margaret Mead preceded him among the Arapesh, and A.B. Lewis along the coast – Mead 1970, Welsch 1998). Although no single cultural group is well-represented by the 184 objects Thomas collected and subsequently sold to the South Australian Museum, the collection as a whole represents aspects of the region’s traditional cultures, their interactions through trade and warfare, and the processes of cultural change set in motion by the Christian missions and colonial administration. Extraordinarily, some of the objects appear to be unique and not represented in the collections of any other museum. A large archive of diaries, patrol reports, essays, photos, lecture notes and other material, located in the possession of his daughter, Helen Inglis, supplements the information provided by Thomas for the purpose of museum registration of his collection. Over half of the collection has been on display in the Museum’s Pacific Cultures Gallery for the past seventy years.
In his Diary (p.42) he muses:
Why does a man leave home to come to places like this? Is it the adventure, the romance or what? I think it must be ‘what’. The adventure palls very soon, and the romance . . . is nil. . . the reason this place appeals and why one wants to come back again is the interest of everything.
He continues the train of thought, distancing himself somewhat from his employers:
The natives themselves are interesting too, and perhaps romantic . . . [but not] romantic and thrilling enough to live with them always as a Kanaka – Anyway, those spoil sports, the Government, would transport me if I tried to live Kanaka, so I can’t, even if I’d like to.
Noting that he liked the native’s directness of speech, and revealing a scepticism about the premise of white superiority, he writes:
A native can be a most likeable personage . . . allowing for and always remembering the superiority of the white race (though some individuals I’ve seen, claiming to belong to the superior white race, rather give the lie to the question of superiority; a bush Kanaka is better than some so-called white men) a native can be as good a man as any other . . . the native has a much higher code of morality than the average white. (ibid, pp.58-9)
Regarding the missions, he writes:
Mission influence, though meant for good, in a village often causes more trouble; for one thing, the ‘heathens’ and ‘Christian converts’ are naturally opposed to each other’s interests. (ibid., pp.60-1)
Given the prevailing opinions and attitudes of the time, and his position as a government officer, Thomas impresses with his genuine liking of the people and a deep interest in their culture. These tendencies were reinforced by his studies at the University of Sydney in 1929, and what began as an idle interest in ‘curios’ and ‘native customs’ became a more systematic series of research projects in each place he was posted or visited on patrol.
In November 1927, while at Aitape, he records: ‘Am collecting a few bows and arrows and other curios which I hope to send down later on…’ (Thomas Archive File 1, p.95). He was also recording his observations on the culture of the people in notebooks titled Notes on Native Customs and Native Folk Tales. In particular, he identified ‘barter’ as a significant aspect of the cultures of the region (ibid., p.100).
It appears that most if not all the things he collected from the Vanimo region derived from his short stay at Wutong in 1928.
I have collected a few curios, including a model canoe, about 2 feet long, which the natives make for the children to play with and to teach them canoe building. (Thomas Archive File 2, p.15)
Other objects collected at Wutong include various body ornamentation featuring tiny nassa shells and the blue glass beads traded down the Southeast Asian island chain; a ‘breast shield’ of pig tusks and red seeds of Abrus precatorius (A.18709); a striking painted tapa cloth (A.18724) featuring two tree-like forms, quite unlike those of Lake Sentani; paddles; arrows; and a fine woven cane cuirass from the hills inland from Vanimo. The blue beads are still highly regarded in the area. Swadling reports, ‘In the Vanimo region in 1980 a single blue bead was worth K100’ (Swadling 1996:206).
Belt (A.18691); three strands of long bird bones, pig bone discs, seeds, and yellow and blue beads; approx. 100 cm around. Wutong, north coast, West Sepik Province.
Two examples of a circlet of three strands of long thin bird bones, large sago seeds and pig bone discs are described in the museum register as necklaces (A.18690, -1, Fig.2). They are, however, tied around the waist with the heavy seeds and pig bone discs to the front and are worn in a dance by men who also wear a large gourd phallocrypt. The penis is swung up and down so that the phallocrypt ‘clacks’ on the front of the belt. This type of belt and phallocrypt is a feature of certain dances from the Vanimo coast right down through the Border Mountains to the Abau of the upper Sepik area (Craig 1980, Plate 18).
Cuirass (A.18793); woven cane and fibre rope; 56 cm high x 38 cm wide x 25 cm deep. ‘Kremari’ (Kilmeri), inland from Vanimo, West Sepik Province.
The woven cane cuirass (A.18793 – Fig.3) is typical of the Krisa inland from Vanimo. These are worn with the high flap to the rear, to protect the neck and shoulders. A remarkable basket from Wom, near Wewak (A.18710), suggests the techniques for making both types of objects were similar.
The most interesting Thomas material from the coastal region is that deriving from Yakamul. This no doubt was facilitated by Thomas’s domestic servant, Haimo, who was from that village. He reports in April 1928 (Thomas Archive File 2, p.41) ‘Haimo went to his place to get a few curios for me . . .’ and in May 1928, ‘Last night Haimo gave me some information regarding the ceremonies performed in the house tamboran for the purpose of ensuring good hunting . . . He also told me that he had brought back a fair issue of curios from his place’ (Thomas Archive File 2, p.56).
The objects from Yakamul (and nearby Paup) include a series of looped string bags, some of which were almost certainly imported to Yakamul along the coast from the Murik Lakes, and others possibly from the Abelam via the Arapesh or Kombio.
Carved head (A.18727); wood, painted with red, white and black pigments; 31 cm x 13 cm x 10 cm. Yakamul, north coast, West Sepik Province.
Another interesting series is of wooden masks. In fact, only some of these appear to have been intended to be worn as masks (A.18678, -9, -80); the others (A.18676, -7; 18727, -8) represent faces or heads of ancestral spirits. Information in the register notes that A.18727 (Fig.4) from Yakamul was used to assist in the catching of possums; the tail and hind legs are represented on top of the head.
In his Notes on Native Customs (Thomas Archive File 10, pp.23-24), an entry dated 11 November 1928 states:
In a big ‘House Tamboran’ . . . there are two halves, that of the big brother and that of the small brother. There is a ‘high priest’ of each half. In the House are erected wooden carved heads representing the two brothers, and also, two sisters, and at times a ‘pikanin’. I have in my possession two heads carved with stone tools [most likely A.18678, -9 – Fig.5], and also later ones. Exactly what these personages represent I cannot say. The ‘big brother’ apparently looks after crops, fine weather and generally good things. The ‘small brother’ causes storms and trouble, etc.
Masks (left: A.18678; right: A.18679); carved wood, painted with red, white and black pigments (deteriorated); 27 cm x 19 cm x 9 cm and 26 cm x 13 cm x 7 cm respectively. Yakamul, north coast, West Sepik Province.
Later on in these notes (pp.48-50), in the context of a legend about the origin of the village of Paup, a human manifestation of a snake has children, but is mortally wounded whilst hunting pigs. The oldest son, Chakila,
obtained a piece of wood from which he carved a head (representing, I assume, his late father – Note: the native words for snake, and for the wooden heads, are the same). This he took to his house and obtained a certain leaf which, after covering, he heated in the fire. The leaves were also placed around the house inside. Taking the leaves in either hand he next stood before the head and ‘fighting’ (or punching) it on either side with his handful of leaves, made the following ‘sing-sing’:
Wiwiri pun (kill pig), wiwiri me-ik (wallaby), wiwiri meich (marmot), wiwiri sevir (cassowary), wiwiri wuchur (possum), wiwiri fari (lizard), wiwiri ne-ip (tree kangaroo), wiwiri fa-ai (fish).
This ‘sing-sing’ was made one day. On the following day he went into the bush and plenty pigs were killed. Only one spear was needed to kill a pig. The pigs were taken home. Chakila then told his brothers of the wooden head and so each one made one. The property of the head, I am told, is that the masale (or spirit) of the tamboran (the head itself) leaves the head and goes and partly ‘kills’ the pigs etc. so that when they are hunted they are easily despatched.
Elsewhere (Thomas Archive File 8, p.7), Thomas records another version of the Paup origin story which applies also to Chinapelli. Here the snake-father is named Manuki and his eldest son is Pamik. As he lies dying, he calls his son:
Speaking quickly, he called Pamik close. ‘Make’, he said, ‘a grave for me and plant me facing the rising sun. Take wood and carve my head that Manuki the fisher, Manuki the snake, may from the spirit world come and through his head work magic that hunting may succeed.’
It is highly likely that the carved heads, A.18676, and A.18727 (Fig.4), although they are from Yakamul rather than Paup, are representations of Manuki or his Yakamul equivalent.
Carved head used for sorcery (A.18728); wood, painted with red, white and black pigments; 31 cm x 11 cm x 7 cm. Paup, north coast, West Sepik Province. Note scraped bridge of nose.
The register information for A.18728 (Fig.6) from Paup states that scrapings of the head are mixed with something personal from the intended victim and used in sorcery. That it has been so used can be seen by the scraped wood of the nose ridge. In the Notes on Native Customs (File 10, pp.51-3), Thomas records information on ‘Poison’ or sorcery, which relates to this carved wood head from Paup:
A piece of ‘dirty’ of a man, ie. any part of him, eg. a piece of clothing he has worn . . . spittle . . . hair . . . is obtained. This is mixed with a certain stinging leaf [nettle?] . . . and wood is scraped from a ‘head belong diwai’ [wooden head] into the same. The whole is covered up, or wrapped up, and placed under the ‘head’. It is then ‘cooked’. This is the word used but it is not cooked on a fire. It is cooked by a ‘sing-sing’ being made similar to that for ‘abus’ [game]: Wiwiri dramua . . . ie. Kill man. Then the name of the man may be called. The sorcerer lets drop the news to a friend that he has ‘made poison along’ a certain man. The news quickly gets to the ears of [the] man and his relatives, and the man sickens . . . Relatives often hurry to the sorcerer and offer him payment to remove the ‘poison’. By this means some can follow a lucrative trade . . . If the poison is obtainable it is damped, when its influence is ‘killed’. A man who knows there is some poison made against him will, perhaps, attempt to get into the place where it is and throw a limbong [container] of water over it.
Female figure (A.18729); carved wood, white and yellow pigments; netted string bag containing plant materials; cane carrying strap; 90 cm x 62 cm x 5 cm thick. Wititai, Torricelli Mountains, West Sepik Province.
During a patrol into the Torricelli Mountains, Thomas collected a female figure (A.18729 – Fig.7) from the village of Wititai, located about 20 kms south-east of present-day Lumi. Thomas had been sent to investigate an allegation of an attack on men of Mabul and Brokom when they were visiting Yemnu, resulting in six deaths. Thomas departed Aitape on 12 January 1932 and reached Mabul on the 15th. Here he picked up members of the aggrieved parties and reached Pualnga on the 19th where he clarified that the attack took place at Wititai. He moved on to Wititai the next day and his police began to search for villagers, as they had fled when they heard the patrol was coming. A few people were rounded up but on the 23rd Thomas decided to return to Pualnga to await the arrival of the District Officer and further police. His diary (Thomas Archive File 4) records under that date the following cryptic lines:
About 13.45 voices heard upper part of village. Shortly after explosions. Investigated – fire seen. Went up and found big ‘house tamboran’ on fire and adjoining houses caught. Police accounted for, also visitors. Moved back to Pualnga, arr[ived] 16.35.
The Museum’s register records that the female figure was ‘From the men’s spirit house; obtained during first punitive patrol to the village.’ This would suggest the possibility that the burning of the spirit house was punitive action. However, my reading of Thomas’s diaries and reports suggests to me that he was meticulous in his procedures, and at this point in time the charges against the Wititai men were allegations that had to be investigated, not proven crimes that needed to be punished. Therefore I would suggest that it was likely that the guides from the aggrieved villages torched the men’s spirit house in Wititai in revenge, and the explosions heard were those characteristic of bamboo exploding. Bamboo is a common building material where the large-diameter species are available; elsewhere Thomas noted the prevalence of bamboo thickets in the East Wapi region.
Other examples of this kind of female figure from the Torricelli Mountains have since come to light (Craig 2012) and are almost certainly analogues of carved and painted female forms to be found among the Abelam and the Arapesh to the east in the Prince Alexander Mountains. Information about the name and function of these figures varies considerably but I was told at Wititai in 2002 that the figure collected by Thomas represents a female ancestor named Mautu who can affect the weather, make contentious people ill, and can assist in the hunting of feral pigs.
Three phallic objects (top to bottom: A.18801-3), carved softwood, painted yellow, white and black; respectively, 65 cm x 7 cm diam., 72 cm x 14 cm diam., 89 cm x 11 cm diam. ‘Central Wapi’, Torricelli Mountains, West Sepik Province.
Another set of objects (A.18801-3 – Fig.8) consists of three pole-like forms, carved from a soft, light wood painted with black, yellow and white pigments. These appear to be examples of the smaller carvings described by Thomas in the following paragraph (File 48, p. 6):
I found no signs of a real spirit house, as found on the coast and at other inland places, which is rigidly 'tambu' to women. However, houses open on all sides are found in some places . . . in which long decorated carvings - the tumbuan - are kept. . . There are also smaller carvings, used in dances, worn by a string round the waist, and I suspect that they are used in a sex dance, from remarks made to me.
Thomas was writing in a general way about the whole Wapi area in this document so there is no specific location for the above observation. Nor, for the Museum register, did he provide a specific location for the three phallic carvings – just Central Wapi. A similar type of object was reported by E. A. Briggs, a biologist of the University of Sydney, who was at the village of Tebarli on February 3, 1926. In his Diary, he wrote:
Visited the House Tamboran and discovered long carved sticks, the base of which rests just above the penis and is held in position by a piece of cane around the waist. Towards the extremity of the wood is tied a second cane and this is fastened round the neck. These sticks are worn during a sing sing.
Man at Epiou, Torricelli Mountains, wearing phallic object. Photo by E.A. Briggs, 1926.
Briggs photographed a man at Epiou wearing one of these phallic objects (Fig.9) and he can be seen in a circling dance in Briggs’s silent film, The Black Heart of New Guinea. When I showed these images to men at Epiou in 2002, they told me the carvings were called silbi (wild kapok tree) because they were made from that soft wood. They said the performance was ‘emi mekim fani’, ie clowning. Some informants said the different forms of the silbi corresponded to the differently barbed heads of spears (sioko, yarepe and pitogro, top to bottom). The silbi photographed by Briggs was identified as yarepe. No doubt there was a deeper significance that has either been forgotten or they were reluctant to discuss.
These are just a few of the most interesting and unique items in the Thomas collection that can be linked to the wealth of archival material provided by Helen Inglis.
Footnote: Although there is evidence that Briggs collected ethnographic material from villages in the Torricelli and Prince Alexander Mountains during 1924 and 1925-26, and these were probably given to the University of Sydney, only a few Lumi-type shields have been identified from Briggs, now in the Australian Museum.
NB. Photographs of the objects are by Elizabeth Edwards, Artlab Australia.
Briggs, E.A. n.d. [1926?] The Black Heart of New Guinea. 16mm film, original at the Australian Film and Sound Archive, Canberra
Briggs, E.A. 1928. New Guinea: Land of the Devil Devil. The Australian Museum Magazine 3:265-273.
Craig, B. 1980. Introduction to the Legends of the Abau of Idam Valley and of the Amto of Simaiya Valley, West Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea. www.uscngp.com/papers/
Craig, B. 2002. ‘A Stranger in a Strange Land…’, in: Pacific Art: Persistence, Change and Meaning. Eds Anita Herle et al. Adelaide: Crawford House Publishing. Pp.191-207).
Craig, B. 2012. Carved and Painted Works of the Torricellis, West Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea. Pacific Arts NS 12,1:5-19.
Mead, M. 1970. The Mountain Arapesh II: Arts and Supernaturalism. New York: The Natural History Press.
Swadling, P. 1996. Plumes from Paradise. Boroko: PNG National Museum in association with Robert Brown & Associates (Qld).
Thomas, K. H. 1941. Notes on the Natives of the Vanimo Coast, New Guinea. Oceania XII,2:163-186.
Welsch, Robert L. (ed.) 1998. An American Anthropologist in Melanesia. A.B. Lewis and the Joseph N. Field South Pacific Expedition 1909-1913. 2 vols. Honolulu: Hawai’i University Press.