Mangroves, Coconuts and Frangipani

Mangroves, Coconuts and Frangipani

Neville Threlfall, Rabaul Historical Society, $45

Few towns of modest size warrant a very large book on their history (this one weighs 2 kilograms). Rabaul in Papua New Guinea is an exception.

Established precariously on an unstable point in the earth’s crust, Rabaul has seen indigenous tribes, colonising outsiders, foreign wars fought on its soil and dramatic social change, all against a background of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

From the 1870s, the area experienced traders and missionaries; then it came under the authority of Germany, Australia and Japan, and was a Mandated Territory to Australia post-World War 2 until Independence in 1976.

People of many races have made it their home. The town was destroyed — several times — by volcano and war and was rebuilt each time with uncertainty.

Neville Threlfall has tackled this complex subject with thoroughness and style. Key themes include race and class relations in a very mixed society, changing models of colonial administration, the growth of commerce, the significant role of Christian missions, tensions between Australian government policy-makers and the local administration, and significant challenges over land rights.

The Australian contribution is frequently found wanting. The long road from first contact to national Independence and beyond is seen through the lens of the community in the Rabaul area.

Threlfall has drawn on archives, interviews and personal experience. The viewpoint of the indigenous people and the long-established Chinese and other ethnic communities is well represented in the complexities of exchanges over land, opportunity, authority and racism.

Dramatic moments in the town’s history — eruptions, invasions, political uprising — are described in detail. Archival and contemporary photographs are excellent. Lively anecdotes lighten the account.

It is disappointing that there are no references to specific sources.

Readers will use this as a valuable resource, not only for Rabaul town but also for the wider questions it raises.

Margaret Reeson

Available from threlfallnm1@bigpond.com.

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