My First Experience With Skin Color Bigotry (Part I)
As anyone who has read my posts knows, I began life as a Kiwi. No, not the bird, the person. Kiwi is the nickname for New Zealanders white or brown. When I was growing up, I had a Maori friend and a Samoan friend. Skin color was not an issue for me and for most people I knew.
In 1965, at the age of 22, I left New Zealand and moved to Australia where I worked in the city of Melbourne for 6 months as an auto mechanic. One morning, I saw an advertisement in the daily paper for mechanics wanted for a vehicle dealership in Port Moresby, New Guinea. That morning, I wrote a letter, provided a copy of my qualifications and two weeks later received a package containing an airline ticket and a “you’ve got a job” letter. I gave a week’s notice to my employer and shortly after, arrived in Port Moresby.
At the time, Papua New Guinea was a territory of Australia and Moresby was the largest town. Papua New Guinea had been governed by Australia from 1920 until independence in 1975 and was a colonial outpost as I was to discover.
Upon arrival, I was greeted at the airport and along with several other new employees were driven to our new lodgings. The company I was employed by was a Brtish Leyland dealership and like all companies operating in Papua New Guinea and employing staff from other countries, they provided accommodation.
This was a cluster of 4 room bungalows, each one equipped with a barbeque and a freezer full of food supplied by the company. Each house was also “equipped” with a “house boy”, a native New Guinean who was paid by the residents in each house and if I remember correctly, payment was two Australian dollars per resident per week. Each house also had a driver whose job was to drive the residents to any place they wanted to go. This was my first experience of the colonialists exploiting the “natives.”
The day after arrival, myself and other new inductees went through an orientation class where we were instructed on the importance of taking anti-malarial pills, how to interact with the indigenous people (The “Natives”), how to stay out of trouble which included not interacting with the native women and where-not to drink alcohol. The latter was the cause of most of the social problems in the territory and lead to a ban on playing cards. It seems some of the indigenous people loved to play cards. They played a game that was invented in New Guinea and that was generally played on payday. Pay was in cash and paid out once a week.
This mixed with their very potent beer and betel nut juice. a mild hallucinogenic was the cause of angst amongst the losers who would accuse the winners of cheating and the card games would end up in violence generally carried out with machetes. After a number of these violent melees had taken a number of lives, the government banned playing cards.
Chewing betel nut was very endemic in Papua New Guinea. It was quite startling to see the effects. Chronic chewers ended up with blood-red mouths, receding gums, often cancerous, and badly ground down teeth.
The roads in and around Port Moresby were very narrow and badly lit. At the orientation, we were advised that if we happened to run over one of the locals, to not stop, go home and call the police or our boss. Some white residents had been very badly beaten after stopping after an accident. During my stay, an Australian had been killed while having an affair with a Papuan woman.
The auto dealership I worked at also had native helpers called “garage boys.” These would be men of any age and they would carry out all the heavy lifting and the dirty work. They would be paid around $3 a day compared to the white mechanics who would earn around $40 a day plus their room and board, a company car, and other perks.
I soon learned the Australian word for the indigenous people was “boong”. This is an extremely disparaging word, a contemptuous term used to refer to brown New Guinea natives and I later found out, an equally contemptuous term used to refer to the Australian Aboriginal.
The garage boy assigned to me was Billy. He was a cheerful guy, in his early 20s, hard-working and eager to learn. He and I became good friends but within the limits of what New Guinea societal rules permitted. The pubs, such as they were, were for the natives. Whites drank at clubs and were served by natives. I didn’t think anything of it and on reflection, I think that was to do with my age and my naivety.
To Be Continued
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