2.8 Rubber Plantation Sagarai River

The map for this four month period shows relatively little travel by Hayes’ standards.  He’s putting together a colonial plantation site with just a few side trips to villages previously unvisited by Europeans and one longer trip to a mission at Isuleilei.

June 12, 1910 – September 12, 1910

Throughout his diaries, Hayes comments on the wildlife and geography of every region he visits and includes extensive observations about the architecture and religious and social organizations of the native people he meets. Though his descriptions are often unflattering, no doubt he regards his as an accurate record intended to offset the sensationalism of a writer like Jack London.

Dense mangrove forests grow in the saltwater swamp of the Sagarai River delta. Any houses in the region must be built on stilts above tides that rise as much as twenty feet. At a place he calls Karola Creek, Hayes finds a bit of solid ground on which to build two stilted houses, one for him and a larger one for men he is beginning to hire.

Stilt House Papua New Guinea

Within two weeks of arriving Hayes writes, “my name is good now, and I get new men constantly.” His self-restraint with the native women and his work ethic offer some explanation of how he can earn a good name in such a short time, nor does he hold himself above the men he hires. When the last sago palm frond finished the roof of his two houses, he and the men went to clear some sunken mangroves to make a shipping channel. “This required going into the water with the crocodiles, and as it seemed hardly fair to set the natives at it and me on the safety of the shore, I went in too. One of us stood guard constantly with the rifle to fire at any croc, but the singing boys frightened them away.” Canoes arrive daily with men looking for work thereby saving Hayes the six pounds other Europeans must pay to recruiters.

“New Guinea must be the aviary of the world, for there are thousands of bright plumaged birds about me constantly”: the iridescent bird of paradise, red bird of paradise, parrots, several species of pigeons, the flightless cassowary, water birds, waders, swimmers, even the megapodes laying their eggs in giant mounds of trash. Though he has not heard of the platypus seen here, the other animals he sees:  wild pigs, kangaroos, opossums, bandicoots, and even echidna suggest to Hayes recent union with the Australian continent.

Even with a good crew of dependable men paid a stick of tobacco to seal any bargain, Hayes still has to contend with trouble. Food is scarce and “Then there is the question of puri-puri. Witch doctors to you and me, meaning little, but to the simple native, life or death.” Paddy, one of the native men recently hired (and named), received a curse from the end of a pointed bone. Hayes forcibly fed Paddy, laughed at the curse and got him past the appointed hour of his death by convincing him that “my medicine was superior to that of the puri-puri man, and he lived.”

Work on the station proceeds well enough with his crew that Hayes can take a day now and again to wander the nearby mountains visiting “several villages where white men have seldom gone.” Not above some Jack London style exoticism he says that he laughed “to see the women nursing small pigs or pups at their breasts.” Full-grown sows roam the village “pugnacious to all but the immediate family” of their “foster mothers” right up to the moment they go into the stew pot.

Group of indigenous men Boku, New Guinea circa 1908-1910
photo by H.P. Schlenker missionary.  USC digital libraries.

Then too, in New Guinea the men routinely break the leg or wing of a captured bird to keep the meat fresh until they are ready to eat it. “They become angry when I kill these wretched brutes, saying their ways are not my ways, and that theirs suit them.” None of his arguments convert the Papuans to Hayes’ ethic. Hayes hears accounts of cannibalism as well: The skipper of a forty-ton sloop that came by their newly built station told of finding several men with limbs broken as for the wings of birds, “laid on a bed of live coals to slowly roast.”

On July 16th, about a month after Hayes arrived at the Sagarai River, Neville, the promoter of the rubber plantation, paid a visit “and he [Neville] realizes he has misrepresented the potentialities of the proposed plantation to the investors.” Nevertheless, a sawmill and several white men from Australia have arrived to further the project. The sawmill is useless and the men are worse; all have come in search of “sensual bliss” with the Papuan women, touching off the jealousies of Hayes’ native workingmen.

Strachan, Hayes’ immediate supervisor on the rubber plantation project, can also see Neville’s swindle unraveling. There are no rubber trees here – but coconuts would grow. Strachan and Hayes take a side trip down to the London Missionary Society station at Isuleilei harbor where Strachan proposes that he and Hayes dump Neville and start a plantation of their own. Strachan has wide acquaintances in Melbourne who will back the endeavor. Hayes knows he can manage the work and Papuan men – could he consider the prospect of owning  a plantation?

Mission House Kalaigolo, New Guinea circa 1908-1910.
photo by H.P. Schlenker (who served at Isuleilei until 1900), missionary.  USC digital libraries.

Through August and September, the lusts of the newly arrived men, Hans, Andy, Percy and the others, breed resentment among the Papuan workers. “The men resent it, have no respect for them and refuse to obey any orders unless forced.” Hayes suffers anemia from the poor food and barely keeps the malaria in check with quinine. His best native men are sent to other parts of the enterprise only to return “bitter because of the beatings so unnecessary, to say nothing of being brutal.”

By the middle of September Halley’s comet has about run its course and the profligacy of Hans, Percy, Andy et al, together with the beatings by other managers have ruined any prospect of maintaining a Papuan workforce in the area. How quickly the idyll of establishing a worksite in the good company of only native workmen is fouled by the ways of the foreign workers arriving to take up station there – time for Hayes to be moving on.

But – “copra is 27 pounds per ton, this will give 20% profit on any capital invested if properly handled.” Maybe Strachan could get the money together? Hayes Perkins plantation owner? “Strachan says he can raise it, and if so, it will be my big chance.” In October, Hayes sails south back to Samarai bound for Australia with this thought in his head: “If all goes well I will return shortly and see what happens in the way of developing land for a plantation of my own, at least in which I expect to be vitally interested.”

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