People - Lillian Overell


In 1923 A Woman's Impressions of German New Guinea was published, describing Lillian Overell's vist to Rabaul and surrounds prior to the establishment of the Mandate. She spent time with Phoebe Parkinson and captured the anxiety of the German settlers as they waited to hear of their fate under the Mandate.

She describes Rabaul (2nd edition page 7-9):-

Rabaul is a beautiful little town built on low-lying land with the steep ridge of hills for a background. The well-laid-out streets are lined with rows of trees and frequently there are also rows down the middle. In one, the acacias were in bloom and showed masses of scarlet and yellow flowers. In another are magificent casuarinas, with mysterious music in their slender rustling branches. The wooden bungalows, standing on high piles, usually have only two or three rooms, but these are large and airy with many windows and doors. They are surrounded by wide verandas, opening here and there into spacious porches which are furnished as sitting-rooms and adorned with plants, creepers and flowers; and here one chiefly lives.

Everywhere is bright green grass, with flowering trees and shrubs, especially vivid-hued crotons. There are very few fences, the properties being separated from one another by low green hedges. One hardly realizes Rabaul is within four and a half degrees of the Equator, the welcome green and shade give such a delightfully cool effect.

Behind the town the road winds up to Namanula where Government House, the hospital and various officials' residences stand on the saddle that overlooks Simsonshafen on one side, and the open sea on the other. Near the wharf are the big stores of the New Guinea Company and H.A.S.A.G.

Chinatown, the commercial centre, is very quaint and orderly. Numerous shops sell rubbish of all kinds at prices far beyond the wildest dreams of profiteers down South. The shopkeepers are letting their stocks run low, for the Mandate has not come through yet, and their tenure is uncertain.

... At one end of Chinatown is the fruit market, where a number of native women squat under a big tree with baskets of pawpaws, green oranges, bananas, granadillas, pineapples and coco-nuts.

... One outlying part of town is restricted to aborigines, and another section is known as Malaytown. Farther on in is the Japanese quarter. The Japanese Consul is said by some to be the richest man in Rabaul. When Lord Jellicoe arrived there, he called at Government House and then at the Japanese Consul's, where he left a present to smooth someone's ruffled feathers.

In the evening weird strains of music rise from the different suburbs, but the place of amuseument most frequented by all shades - white, black, brown, and yellow - is the moving picture show.

Lilian spent time with Mrs Parkinson (Miti) at Kuradui, including a recruiting trip in the Wing, a driving excursion inland and a trip to Sum Sum on the south coast. She describes a visit to a village on their inland tour (2nd edition page112-113):-

At one end of village were some enclosures with the usual palisade of sticks, stuck closely together and growing vigorously. No women were allowed here, for these were 'sacred places.' Miti was, of course, a privileged person, so we went inside and looked around. It was in these places that the duk-duks used to dress and here the masks were put on.

The duk-duks were a secret society, and their aim seems to have been to keep up old customs, to indicate which people were to be eaten, to dance at funerals, and to punish parents who struck their children. The women were very afraid of the duk-duks. Once a year there was a grand ceremony, when the duk-duks landed in a double-ended canoe, and all the natives would assemble on the beach to meet them.

The masks were grotesque things, heavy and uncomfortable to wear, and they could not be worn for long, so the 'sacred places' were rather like dressing-rooms where they could rest and take them off for a breathing space.

I think the men simply had secret societies and wear masks to assert their superiority and to keep the women in subjection. The latter are fearfully overworked and submit humbly to harsh treatment. They never attempt to assert themselves. A feminist movement would be excellent.

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  • Lillian Overell, A Woman's Impressions of German New Guinea, Second edn, The Bodley Head Ltd, London, 1929, 224 pp.

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Created by Joanne and Jenny Evans, July 2002. Updated 29 May 2011