My mother’s silence, my nation’s shame

Colonial violence in Australia and New Guinea 

ON 4 FEBRUARY 1942, stripped of all identification, hands wired behind his back, my grandfather and some 160 other Australians were marched by Japanese soldiers into the jungle on the coast of New Britain in the former Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea and, one by one, shot or bayoneted from behind. Some were burnt alive.

There’s a photograph of their bleached and scattered bones in the Australian War Memorial, taken by one of the Australian soldiers who found them in 1945:

Remains of Australian soldiers killed during the retreat from Rabaul on 4 February 1942. Approx. 160 soldiers were massacred by the Japanese in a series of separate incidents at the Tol Plantation in New Britain… The soldiers were retreating south, alone or in small parties, from Rabaul following the successful Japanese attack on 23 January 1942… On 3 February, the Japanese attacked Tol, capturing a number of men as they tried to escape from the plantation.

On 1 July 1942, a further 800 Australian soldiers and 200 civilians captured after the Battle of Rabaul were killed when the Montevideo Maru, their transport ship to prison camps in Japan, was torpedoed by the US submarine USS Sturgeon and sank.

Of the 1,396 members of Lark Force, the hapless army contingent charged with defending this Australian outpost on the north coast of New Britain against the military might of Japan – and then abandoned by Australia’s government as ‘hostages to fortune’ – only 400 survived.

These ghostly fragments have haunted me all my life – as have the many enforced silences that billowed in their wake, echoing the many other great silences of Australian colonial history.


ON 7 APRIL 1942, Melbourne’s Argus ran the page-three headline ‘Shocking Atrocities by Japs: Party of Australians murdered’. Three days later it reported ‘125 Soldiers Massacred by Japanese, Survivor’s story’. But wartime censorship regulations soon kicked in and the story disappeared. The Chief Publicity Censor was severely reprimanded for passing news of these atrocities in New Britain for press publication, and soon after the Advisory War Council forbade publication of any atrocity stories unless they were officially released – and then only when it was determined whether the ‘probable effect on public morale would be good or bad’. The ban on these stories effectively censored the reporting of all alleged Japanese war crimes during the war.

But these weren’t the only stories that were officially silenced.

The year before, on Christmas Eve 1941, my grandmother had arrived in Sydney with little more than the clothes on her back, where my mother, thirteen, and her younger brother, ten, had been waiting to travel home to Rabaul for Christmas. They’d been sent to school on the mainland several years earlier, after the violent eruption of Rabaul’s Vulcan and Tavurvur volcanoes in 1937, and had travelled home together by boat each December.

But this year the Japanese advance in the Pacific had prevented their return. Instead, their mother was among the hundreds of white women and children evacuated from Rabaul on 22 December 1941 who were now seeking refuge in Australia, a country that had no idea of what was happening to its north. To avoid panic, these women were told not to talk about where they had come from.

This imposed silence – briefly interrupted by scant news of the massacre of men in flight from Rabaul in 1942 – was reinstated by the government censor.

Through the war years the women struggled to support themselves and their children as they waited for news of their missing men. ‘How long is this nightmare going to last?’ one evacuee wrote in 1942. ‘I just think and think in vicious circles and get nowhere…tonight I am in the deepest depths of depression.’

Only in August 1945, after the Japanese surrender, did any real information about those hundreds of missing men begin to trickle in. Then suddenly, in September 1945, telegraph offices were swamped by official messages addressed to the families of men who’d been on the Montevideo Maru. For most, a blunt telegram was all that they received.

In her memoir He’s Not Coming Home, Gillian Nikakis recalls the night her own mother broke the news that she’d received by telegram:

I clearly remember the scene in the bathroom as my mother spoke the words, ‘Your father will not be coming home.’ My brother was sitting in the bath and I was standing beside it while she dried me with a towel. On the outside I was quite calm and did not shed a tear, but inside I remember the feeling. I wanted to yell ‘Don’t tell me! I don’t want to know! I don’t want it to be true!’… As children often do when they lose a parent, I believed it was somehow my fault. So I kept silent. It was 1945 and I had just turned six.

Three months later, my own grandmother answered the door to a teenaged boy. He handed her a telegram: ‘Your husband, previously reported Missing in Action, is now reported KIA [Killed in Action].’ Until that moment they’d lived in hope. My uncle had been writing letters to his father in a POW camp in Japan since 1942. That night, his ‘world came crashing down’. It was Christmas Eve 1945.

And still the many silences of those four years, officially and self-imposed, resound through the lives of the evacuated families of prewar Rabaul, of those who were so utterly ‘bereaved of place as well as people’.


IT WAS SEVENTY long years before the official silence was broken, after a group of the bereaved – including my uncle, Philip – banded together in 2009 and called for an official memorial in Australia to the men who died defending Rabaul. Only in July 2012 was a commemorative sculpture finally unveiled in Canberra, after this group had raised money and persuaded a war-memorialising federal government of its necessity. As a nation, Australia has preferred to memorialise distant debacles, such as Gallipoli, or hard-won victories on other country, such as Kokoda. But there is so much more we don’t remember, so many countless silences that conceal stories of families on this continent who’ve been utterly bereaved of place and people.

The memorial sculpture in Canberra is now a special place for those connected to this moment of World War II and a link to events they hope will now resonate in Australia’s national consciousness. It’s one site that redresses silence, that calls to account a national narrative that has failed to record so many other massacres, so many stories of violence, of long-held loss, of grief and mourning without bodies, graves, monuments or ordinary public rituals. An official history of determined silence and willed forgetting.

As the lost story of Rabaul demonstrates, even when confronting national histories have been recorded, they can be silenced and vanish. Nowhere is this more true than in the narratives related to the deracination of Australia’s First Nations – a concerted silencing brought forcefully home to me during doctoral work I undertook on the novels of Alexis Wright and Kim Scott. Their fiction invokes some of this nation’s many erasures: the murdered, the raped, those severed from Country, the stolen children, the violated land and ancestors, the countless crimes against this continent’s First Nations peoples.

IN 1865 THE Brisbane Courier published an account of the brutal ‘settlement’ of Queensland’s southern Gulf Country then underway: ‘[T]he Queensland settlers seem to hunt and shoot the blacks whenever they see them, instead of making friends with them, and afterwards making them useful.’ In official records of the time such violence was called ‘dispersing the natives’. The Queenslander defined ‘disperse’ in 1880 as ‘a convenient euphemism for wholesale slaughter’. Jack Watson, head stockman at Lorne Hill and so-called ‘King of the Gulf’, had forty pairs of Aboriginal ears nailed to his wall.

Lorne Hill is Waanyi country, Alexis Wright’s ancestral land. Her first novel, Plains of Promise, recounts its violent invasions – exceptional even by Australian standards:

The history of these cattle stations was forged by Aboriginal men and women who lived in slavery, bound to the most uncivilised and cruellest people their world had ever seen. Those enslaved were the Aborigines who had escaped the whiteman’s bullet, his whip, his butchering and trophy collections – the sets of severed ears decorating the lounge-room wall.

Wright’s novels work as testimony, memorials, acts of Aboriginal sovereignty.

With few exceptions, the massacres of First Nations people have not yet been formally acknowledged, memorialised or communally mourned by Australia; they are still being researched and mapped. One rare exception is the memorial at Kakanerup in south-western Western Australia, the result of eight years of planning and collaboration in the spirit of reconciliation by the local Ravensthorpe farming communities and Wirlomin Noongar people. It commemorates the slaughter of more than thirty local men, women and children by the brothers and friends of John Dunn, a farm worker who had attacked and raped a thirteen-year-old Noongar girl in around 1880. These murders were in retaliation for Dunn’s death, itself enacted under tribal law and acquitted by the colonial court.

This tragedy was so horrendous it was held as taboo for over a century. But in 2015, a memorial to those killed was unveiled. Noongar Elder Carol Petterson described it as one of the first memorials of its kind in Australia, acknowledging the past and reconciling the future for both the local Indigenous people and agricultural industry: ‘It’s important because it’s a hallmark of the reconciliation process. Reconciliation is an action, not a word, and that’s what’s happened here today.’

Noongar writer Kim Scott’s novel Taboo recounts the long process of conversing that led to the memorial’s unveiling. It performs the kind of multivocal, active, communal storytelling that’s essential for the work of remembering. As literary historian Tony Hughes-d’Aeth points out, the novel makes clear that – despite such commemorative acts and public gestures – the reality of a massacre ‘cannot ultimately be separated from the inner lives of the survivors and their descendants’. He suggests that Taboo reveals the terrain of massacre to be extimate. This word is used by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to describe a psychic reality that ‘helps name the space that is routinely excluded by the deployment of public and private domains in the liberal capitalist order, whereby social suffering is consigned to a privatised interior, and private violence is made banal by empty public utterances’.

The notion of being ‘extimate’ powerfully conveys the psychic reality that has increasingly prevailed in Australia since 1788 – and begins to suggest the scale of reckoning that is urgently needed here on this ‘black land’, as Scott rightly calls it.


BUT AUSTRALIA’S RECKONING with violence and dispossession also requires us to look beyond these shores. Our own colonial venture – in Papua New Guinea – reprises and refracts the worst of colonial brutality on this continent. Officially, it began in the 1880s with the colony of Queensland’s thwarted attempt to annex New Guinea. When Germany then acquired the north-eastern part of the island, Britain claimed the south-east – and formally handed it to the Commonwealth of Australia in 1905. Renamed Papua, this land became an Australian external territory – and the Commonwealth then seized German New Guinea when war broke out in Europe in 1914.

At the Paris Peace Conference after the war in 1919, Prime Minister ‘Billy’ Hughes fought hard to keep this territory, declaring it essential for Australia’s northern defence. He also successfully pushed for the application of the White Australia policy there, securing a ‘C’-class mandate that allowed Australia to apply its economic and legal systems to the new Mandated Territory of New Guinea while prohibiting its fortification and the establishment of military and naval bases. Here in this terrain, some 1,500 kilometres to the north-east of mainland Australia – and largely ignored by it – the nation’s white supremacist practices and commercial opportunism came into their own.

Rabaul, built on the land of the Tolai people, was an explicitly racially stratified town, its residents designated ‘white’, ‘yellow’ or ‘black’, with separate areas and rules for each. Unlike neighbouring Papua, which was funded by the Commonwealth, the Mandated Territory had to pay its own way. This spawned a rapacious mercantile culture dominated by two companies, known locally as ‘Bloody Pirates’ (Burns Philp) and ‘Would Rob Christ’ (WR Carpenter), and the ruthless profiteering of both was facilitated by cheap resources and ‘indentured labour’.

While the League of Nations required that mandatory powers promote ‘the material and moral wellbeing and the social progress of the natives’, its regulations on forced labour were conditional: involuntary labour was forbidden – ‘except for essential public works and services, and then only for adequate remuneration’. As early as 1922, ‘some puzzling questions’ were being raised by the League about the ‘apparent conflict between the prohibition of forced labour and the natural requirement of an administration that those under its control should do a reasonable amount of useful work’. To one Methodist missionary, the territory’s system of indenture was inherently wrong, like slavery. And in some cases the distinction between indenture and slavery does seem non-existent: the records for sales of copra plantations list human beings among their chattels; the sale book of one plantation recorded among its assets ‘73 native labourers’.

By 1938, over 4,400 New Guinean men and boys were working under indenture as domestic servants, amounting to one servant for every white man, woman and child in the territory. Another 37,000 New Guineans worked as indentured labourers for plantations, mines and other businesses. As historian Hank Nelson observes: ‘Whether they worked for the church, the state, the family or private gain, nearly all adult members of the white community gave daily instructions to New Guinea servants.’ The whites’ superior position was spelt out in the New Guinea Handbook (1937), given to all new Australian arrivals:

It has been truthfully written that ‘the function of the white man in a tropical country is not to labour with his hands, but to direct and control a plentiful and efficient supply of native labour’.

Like so many Australians in New Guinea, my grandfather, James, had recently returned from the Western Front when he arrived in Rabaul with his wife, Violet, in 1925. He worked as a solicitor in the administration and employed three ‘house boys’: Wanave, Malagabu and ToKubin. The Handbook offered the following guidance on numbers: ‘the average bungalow home requires from three to five native servants; the essentials at any rate are the cook, laundry boy…and the house boy.’ These so-called boi were young men ‘apparently’ over the age of twelve. Such was the abundance of cheap labour that it led to outlandish practices such as boi accompanying mastas to parties carrying the several starched shirts the men needed for the humid nights.

Relations between these two groups were prescribed by the Native Labour Ordinance in the following wishful terms: mastas were to be strict, compassionate, commanding without being violent, providing pay and food, and concerned for their labourers’ welfare; boi were to be hardworking, obedient, discreet and appreciative.

The reality was quite different. By far the most common offence that brought white men before the courts was bashing labourers, while Indigenous men were regularly hauled in for offences such as consuming alcohol (forbidden to them) and petty theft. The territory’s systemic racist culture was summed up by an anonymous correspondent to the Rabaul Times in 1928: ‘Never allow a native to forget that he is your inferior.’

By the late 1930s, it was well known that if Britain went to war in Europe, Japan might strike south and attempt to establish a base in Rabaul. But when war was declared in 1939, Australia sent its four army divisions overseas to Britain’s aid. Only in April 1941 – breaking the mandate’s rule against fortifying the territory – did Canberra start despatching Lark Force to Rabaul. Soon after, the administrative headquarters (under Walter McNicoll) were moved some 630 kilometres away to Lae due to volcanic activity, and McNicoll’s deputy (Harold Page) was left behind as acting administrator. Following Japan’s shock attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the town’s white women and children were evacuated to Australia.

This was how my grandmother, Violet, had reached Sydney on Christmas Eve 1941.

New Year’s Day 1942 brought the following order from Australia: ‘THERE SHALL BE NO WITHDRAWAL’; meanwhile, in Japan’s own mandated territory just to the north, its South Seas Force – some 17,000 troops and most of the fleet that had attacked Pearl Harbor – was assembled and scheduled to invade.

Yet during these end times for the Australian Territory, war was not allowed to interrupt summer holiday plans on the mainland. In Canberra, Walter McNicoll’s urgent cablegrams sat unnoticed and Harold Page’s pleas to evacuate Rabaul’s remaining 300 white civilians in a Norwegian freighter loading copra were denied.

Japan invaded Rabaul in the early hours of 23 January 1942. Around midday, the battle over, Lark Force’s commanding officer ordered each man to fend for himself. Abandoned by senior leadership on the mainland and in the territory, pelted by enemy fire and drenched by downpours, the Australians walked into the jungle.

The ensuing silence from Rabaul was met by further inaction in Canberra. Two weeks later, Frank Forde, Minister for the Army, wrote to Prime Minister John Curtin:

The attitude of those with near relatives in our Garrison at Rabaul is becoming bitter and hostile at the lack of any news of their sons, brothers and husbands, and of the feeling that is being created that although something could have been done to assist them, nothing is being attempted.

Nothing was attempted; the silence prevailed.

In October 1945, after the war’s official end, ‘A Victim’s Sister’ wrote to The Sydney Morning Herald:

Sir – There should be a public inquiry into the treatment of the civilian population of Rabaul, which the Government refused to evacuate even when it was aware that an invasion fleet was standing off the coast and was within a few hours of effecting a landing…

There was no inquiry.

In Crisis of Command, historian David Horner assesses this history: ‘It is now generally agreed that the Australian defence policy between the wars and until the fall of Singapore [on 15 February 1942] was at the best, naively optimistic, and at the worst…close to treason.’


I GREW UP with the ghosts of these events; my mother lived them. Their silences were excruciating – but they acted on me like gravity.

My mother’s own silence was equally emphatic: she rarely spoke of her Rabaul childhood. I felt this most palpably on a day we took a train together from Sydney to Melbourne when I was nineteen. My mother began describing an unusual childhood bicycle, gesturing with her arms. Then she suddenly stopped mid-sentence, glared at me and walked out of the carriage. She didn’t return until the train had reached its terminus.

But six weeks before she died in February 2015, my mother commanded all our family’s attention at the noisy Christmas table.

You must see The Railway Man, she announced.

Struck by the force of this exhortation, I asked why.

PTSD: that was all that she would say.

I knew what these letters stood for – post-traumatic stress disorder – and I was stunned by her uncharacteristic reference to psychiatry; this was another subject of which she did not speak. So I watched this film about a British prisoner of war tortured by his Japanese captor who, decades later, attempted to live a regular life with the war’s violence still alive in his body, interrupting his sleep, sending him nightmares.

Based on the memoir of Eric Lomax, The Railway Man (2013) is about the force of trauma and its repercussions for bodies and relationships – and it shows a sort of healing that can be reached through reunion, a second marriage and extraordinary acts of forgiveness.

When I told my mother I’d seen it, I expected her to tell me a story of her childhood, of war and trauma. Instead, she gave me a message to deliver to her brother: Tell him we must forgive the Japanese.

While these words didn’t help me to untangle the riddle of Rabaul – which was what I wanted at the time – I now understand that they spoke a larger truth concerning all that violence and loss. When my mother finally found a voice to speak to the taboo of her own childhood, the words she spoke were not of trauma but of forgiveness. She was indirectly telling me – as her eldest child and go-between – that extraordinary acts of forgiveness are required to live fully in the aftermath of horror.

We never spoke of it again.

And I never told her that I’d spent years trying to write about her taboo childhood – although I took this brief exchange as tacit permission to do openly what I’d been doing in the dark.

In 2000, soon after I’d become a mother myself, a story of Rabaul emerged in my writing. And as I wrote, an angel appeared in the story’s landscape, hurled from the erupting Tavurvur in 1937 – and falling at the feet of my astonished grandfather. I didn’t question this creative visitation at the time; I simply obeyed the urge to write. But now I wonder if my own body, newly metamorphosed by motherhood, was insisting I find a way to reckon with the size and scale of my mother’s childhood and its huge losses.

Likewise, Gillian Nikakis only felt the full impact of her father’s death after she’d become a mother: the grief ‘had stayed frozen inside for all those years… I was stunned at the amount of grief I had been carrying around.’ As psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk writes of the lasting impact of traumatic events on the body in his pioneering work The Body Keeps the Score (2014):

traumatic experiences do leave traces, whether on a large scale (on our histories and cultures) or close to home, on our families, with dark secrets being imperceptibly passed down through generations. They also leave traces on our minds and emotions…and even on our biology and our immune systems. Trauma affects not only those who are directly exposed to it, but also those around them.

This bodily score-keeping lies within Eric Lomax’s story of torture, trauma and forgiveness. But in The Railway Man, as is systemically the case, the voices of wife, mother and children are silenced by the narration of masculinity, war and trauma. The film’s release revealed that Lomax had excised three key people from his memoir: his first wife of thirty-seven years and their two daughters. Yet watching The Railway Man, one of these daughters, Charmaine, felt as if the final piece of her lifelong quest to understand her father had fallen into place:

My dad…was there physically, but emotionally he was 100 per cent absent… But we were always there. What happened to him happened to us, too… What I saw for the first time was the man Dad should have been, the man he would have been if he hadn’t suffered in the terrible way that he did.

Only then, in 2013, was she able to forgive him.


IN WAYS I’M only beginning to fathom, my mother’s own silence had also silenced me – so profoundly that I only felt permitted to begin researching this history in 2018, three years after her death. But when I tried to write about this past the following year, I became so haunted by my dead ancestors that I thought I’d lost my mind. I consulted a psychologist, believing I had intractable writer’s block. Instead, she treated me for complex trauma. Despite my overwhelming urge to tell it, this fragmented story was frozen inside me; as van der Kolk makes clear, traumatic memories resist narrative. 

Although my mother had never wanted to return to the land of her childhood, I knew then that I had to travel there instead. Eventually, guided by my uncle who had returned  in 2009 to exorcise the ghosts that consumed him, I flew alone to Rabaul in September 2019. I had no idea what to expect. But from the moment I saw its landscape from the tiny aeroplane, Rabaul’s harbour flanked by volcanoes looked shockingly familiar – I’d never imagined it would feel like coming home. Drinking beer with the locals at the Rabaul Hotel that night, I told them that my grandfather had lived on Namanula Hill under the Mother, a dormant volcano. They welcomed me as belonging – and we ended the night dancing together.

The next morning a tall man at the hotel’s reception told me he’d heard on the radio that a white woman had been dancing in the bar the night before. Smiling, he introduced himself as Conrad Jui and offered me his services as a guide. We’d visit the cemetery, walk Namanula Hill and travel to several volcanoes, including Tavurvur.

On our journey back along the beach from Tavurvur, the volcano looming black behind us, we stopped to rest at a memorial to the late Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, the man credited with leading Papua New Guinea to independence in 1975. Conrad told me Somare had been born here in 1936, a few hundred metres from Tavurvur, the home of ToLagulagu, the kaia of a string of volcanoes. When Tavurvur erupted in 1937, he said, the villagers on nearby Matupit Island had seen the kaia dancing on its rim.


Spirit of the volcano.

Like an angel dancing on the rim of the erupting volcano?


My skin prickled. I’d always thought I’d made that angel up; that in the absence of truth, I’d imposed a supernatural being from Western cosmology onto this Tolai land. But here was a real story of a spirit in this place.

It was as if Conrad’s story of this kaia, this ‘angel’, had returned some truth about my grandfather to me – as if my grandfather’s phantom self had been restored to a flesh-and-blood granddaughter, who sat there listening to stories about the land where he’d died seventy-seven years before.

Before I left Rabaul, I sat barefoot on the grass with Conrad by a bronze plaque engraved with names at the Bita Paka War Cemetery. He gave me a small red flower to press by my grandfather’s name. Sobbing, I thanked him, asked him how he knew exactly what to do, as if he was an intermediary between the living and the dead. He told me that’s exactly what he is: a guide between worlds, living and dead.

When Conrad left me alone, I spoke to the man who’d haunted me all my life. I told him I was his granddaughter here to visit him. I spoke of his beloved daughter, Judith, and said we’d never forgotten him.

Only later did I realise how much this story – this whole saga – is about the necessity of conversing. ‘Conversing’ comes from the Latin word for ‘to live, dwell, live with, keep company with’. Yes: this is a story about the need to keep company, with ancestors, friends and strangers alike – and about the necessity of remembering, and extraordinary acts of forgiveness.


MY ACTS OF return, of speaking to dead ancestors memorialised in a cemetery, of conversing with locals on the land where those ancestors died, of weeping: I know all these are an essential part of ongoing healing and afforded me only by my privileged position as a white, middle-class adult with resources, agency and education. Too many other Australians have been afforded no such opportunities or rituals.

This process of familiarising myself with the matter of my ancestors has been agonising – and necessarily so: it’s part of my ongoing attempt to reckon with my unsettled place in Australia’s violent and intrusive colonial history. As trauma theorist Cathy Caruth argues: ‘If PTSD must be understood as a pathological symptom, then it is not so much a symptom of the unconscious, as it is a symptom of history.’

And only now do I begin to see that all my work so far has been about this sort of reckoning with history – with master narratives literary, economic, colonial, racial, gendered, familial – in an attempt to bring to light their multitudinous erasures and silences. This work is necessary – and ongoing.

Does this begin to suggest the magnitude of the reckoning non-­Indigenous Australia must do if we are to properly, lawfully, dwell on this black land? Does this begin to suggest the shape and nature of what may be our most urgent task? Not just making space for these stories to be told but undertaking what is perhaps the most important component of any conversation: listening.

The Aboriginal practice of Dadirri, deep listening, is one that moves towards healing. Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, Aboriginal Elder, Nauiyu, describes it as:

inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness… We have learned to speak the white man’s language. We have listened to what he had to say. This learning and listening should go both ways. We would like people in Australia to take time to listen to us. We are hoping people will come closer. We keep on longing for the things that we have always hoped for – respect and understanding.

There is much deep listening to do in Australia, much silence to navigate, much justice to serve. Only then might we really be able to keep company on this black land: all of us, together.

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