Read Visitants Online

Authors: Randolph Stow


Visitants (2 page)

In the novel, the rooky kiap Dalwood calls Cawdor crazy for taking the sightings seriously. ‘My father…believes that Jesus Christ was the son of God,’ Cawdor replies. ‘Boy, is he crazy, but no one says so.’ Stow brings us Dimdim readers to see that maybe the idea is not so crazy, not so much by exchanges like that, but by weaving into the text, before the rumours start, all manner of star sightings: the star of Bethlehem in Mission stories, the bullets and ammunition that fell from the sky in the war and went ‘bang in their faces’. Lamps, lights, torches, fires, fireflies: the sky is a tableau of stars. Why not star-people?

In one of Cawdor’s longer diary extracts, he reflects on the ‘receptiveness’ of the islands, with everything incorporated into the Kiriwina social universe, that ‘comforting institution, that scheme of things’: vast stretches of time, volcanoes rising from the sea, lagoons rejoining the ocean, gardens growing, clans forming, a rich world with the Kiriwina at its centre, ‘digesting’ a parade of visitors since the French explorer D’Entrecasteaux at the end of the eighteenth century.

‘Black men, white men,’ the old chief says, ‘canoes, steamers. They bring their somethings. But we—we stay and watch, that is all. Every day the same.’

But is that the view of Benoni, his nephew, the young contender? He might think, hope, that colonial rule will pass, but he’s worked at the naval base on Manus; he speaks pidgin; he’s seen the technology, the money, the power of modernity. It is Benoni who, in the novel, asks the question about the Japanese, not because he doesn’t know—for he does; he asks because he wants the men of the village who ask him that question to hear his answer corroborated by the Dimdims.

This is one small move in Benoni’s play of power and knowledge against the old chief. He knows there’s no going back to a past that in any case was always changing, shifting, digesting. No, the villages won’t remain ‘the same’. Benoni doesn’t want ‘same’; he wants to influence, mould how the social universe of the islands will meet the challenge, the threat, the dilemma, the possibilities ahead. Colonialism will pass, but not modernity.


One reading of Dipapa’s rage near the end of
is that the really frightening visitants are not the ones that come in steamers, or appear from the sky and go away again, but those that take up lodging within us: the lodging of the new ways in the new generation. What has lodged in Benoni; what visitant will reign if he is not prevented from becoming chief? Sleeping with Dipapa’s young wife is shaming, but is it enough to trigger the destruction of the villages?

And what has lodged in Patrol Officer Cawdor? We know he has malaria in the days before his suicide. What other visitant has lodged in him? ‘It is like my body is a house,’ he is reported to have said right at the end, ‘and some visitor has come and attacked the person who lived there.’ We know his wife has run off with the Government Doctor; we know he is shamed; we also know he was not at ease in the colonial social world he inhabited with her. Osana, the Government Interpreter, might hate the way his power is diluted by Cawdor’s fluency with Kiriwina, but it is Cawdor’s understanding of the island, his ability to hear the island’s voices, that Benoni responds to, and uses, in his struggle to depose Dipapa.

Benoni understood who Cawdor was, but for others on the island the question remained: had this strange, unnatural kiap who chewed betel and smoked trade-store tobacco somehow crossed into territory where he did not belong? Was he a visitant, or was he not? Was the visitant within him? Or had he, to put it in Dimdim language, ‘gone troppo’, that’s all?

That is the conclusion of the Assistant District Officer presiding over the inquiry. He misses just about everything, understanding little or nothing of the events culminating not only in the suicide of Cawdor but the burning of the villages and the death of Dipapa. He does not see Benoni’s role, but at least in the case of a young man—a future ‘native District Commissioner’, maybe—he sees that Benoni could have been a player. When it comes to Saliba, the major female voice in the novel, he sees only ‘a domestic in MacDonnell’s household’. The question of her role simply doesn’t arise. Naibusi, the old woman who is a great deal more than MacDonnell’s ‘housekeeper’, doesn’t even get called as a witness to his inquiry.

Yet on this matrilineal island, it is these two women, one young, one old, who know exactly how these narratives intersect. Both are snared in the changes and upheavals stirring the islands; both are critical to the outcome. It is we, the readers of the novelistic inquiry, who come to understand that women, and especially older women, are essential to the stability of the Kiriwina social universe; their power is very different, but no less significant, than that of the chief.

Of the Dimdim men, it is Cawdor who sees, or suspects, what has happened. There are clues in his diaries, but these do not sway the ADO. Cawdor had ‘gone native’, after all; ‘gone troppo’. If MacDonnell and Dipapa represent the old men, the old way, the uneasy colonial balance that must, and will, pass, then Cawdor and Benoni, along with Saliba, are of the generation that has been formed, and caught, in the profound changes and cultural crossings that had come to the islands and to PNG by 1979. A modernist novel of a colonial moment, as I say, told with a postcolonial mind.

But must the cultural crossings always be so tragic? This is a large question, for which
has no easy answer.

Cawdor dies an ugly death. Stow does not spare us the detail, and there is nothing to be said in mitigation. And yet. On the night before his suicide, Cawdor gives Dalwood a copy of the book he’s been reading, William H. Prescott’s
The Conquest of Mexico
; inside, he has written in the Kiriwina language:

Do not be sorry. Everything will be good, yes, everything will be good, yes, every kind of thing will be good.

This, to the ADO, presiding over the inquiry, confirms Cawdor’s ‘confusion of mind’. In his report he adds that a priest on the island ‘believes this note contains a quotation from English’. Which of course it does, with its echoes of Julian of Norwich, and T. S. Eliot, a mystic, poetic inheritance of which this colonial arbiter is unaware. We also know that these are words that Naibusi has used both to Cawdor and to Saliba. The Kiriwina world, she is saying, will be well. It is more than any of them. ‘You will see, how all will be well.’

But will it? There are powerful forces at play, and none of the witnesses, except perhaps MacDonnell, believes that the matter is ‘ended’, as the ADO tells them—for clearly it has not.



Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises…





Oh, my lords,

I but deceived your eyes with antic gesture,

When one news straight came huddling on another

Of death, and death, and death. Still I danced forward;

But it struck home, and here, and in an instant.

…They are the silent griefs which cut the heart-strings…





Tispela buk mi laik salim long
wantok bilong mi



On June 26th, 1959, at Boianai in Papua, visitants appeared to the Reverend William Booth Gill, himself a visitant of thirteen years standing, and to thirty-seven witnesses of another colour. At 6.45 p.m. Mr Gill, an Anglican missionary, glanced at the sky to locate the planet Venus. He saw instead a sparkling object, ‘very, very bright,’ which descended to an altitude of around four hundred feet. The craft was shaped like a disc, perhaps thirty to forty feet across, with smaller round superstructures, and had on the underside four legs pointing diagonally downwards. Uppermost on the disc was a circular bridge, like the bridge of a ship, perhaps twenty feet in diameter.

Behind this bridge, and visible from the waist up, human figures emerged and proceeded to busy themselves with some operation on deck. They bent and straightened from time to time, occasionally turning in the direction of the onlookers, but showed on the whole no interest in anything but their machine. The focus of activity appeared to be a thin blue spotlight directed at the sky. This was switched on at irregular intervals, each time for the space of a few seconds. The figures, seemingly four in all, continued preoccupied with this work for the rest of the night.

On impulse, as one of the figures leaned forward over the bridge, the clergyman saluted him by waving a hand over his head. The figure replied in kind, like a skipper on a boat (said Mr Gill) waving to someone on the wharf. Then a Papuan teacher called Ananias waved with both arms, and two other figures returned the greeting. Encouraged, Mr Gill and Ananias began to wave a good deal, and were acknowledged by all four visitants. The watching Papuans were ‘surprised and delighted’. Small boys called out, everyone beckoned the ‘beings’ to come down. But there was no audible response, and the faces and expressions of the figures remained obscure: ‘rather like,’ as Mr Gill said, ‘players on a football field at night.’

The tenuous contact ended with a display of technology by the groundlings, and wistfully on their part. They signalled to the disc with a flashlight. ‘The object swung like a pendulum, presumably in recognition. When we flashed the torchlight towards it, it hovered, and came quite close towards the ground…and we actually thought it was going to land, but it did not. We were all,’ said Mr Gill, speaking for the thirty-seven witnesses to his testimony, ‘very disappointed about that.’

The craft, after floating above Boianai for two nights, ascended to a great altitude and vanished.


held 28–30 November, 1959
before Mr J. G. Browne,
Assistant District Officer, Osiwa Sub-district,
Territory of Papua




Planter, of Kailuana Island


A domestic in Mr MacDonnell’s household


Cadet Patrol Officer,
Osiwa Sub-district


Government Interpreter,
Osiwa Sub-district


Heir to Dipapa,
Chief of Kailuana


And he screamed: The house is bleeding. There is nobody inside, he said. But I said: No,
, it could not be like that. A house is strong, I said, and has its own time. You will see, I said; you will see how a house endures.

Thinking of this house, and the far rooms, that voices go into and then you hear nothing, but still they are there.

When first I came from Wayouyo I said to Naibusi: This house is too hollow, too loud. Because a house among palms is like a house at sea, and the leaves are in it all around you, night and day. A house should be like a cave, I said, closed and dark. But Naibusi said: No, that is not the Dimdim custom. They like the wind in their houses, she said, and to look out on the sea, and I think he listens to the palms, because he planted them in the time when he was strong and young.

My house is a conch, he said. By and by it will ring in the wind.

When he spoke to me he was sad. The rain is eating my house, he said. We were outside, in front of the house, and we looked to see what the rain had done, and Misa Makadoneli was shaking his head, a sad man. The wooden walls were the black of rain and the red of rust and green of slime. In the rainy wind the palms were being blown all one way, and were soft like feathers, coloured by the sky.

Grey, he said. See, Salib’, my trees are grey.

And your hair is grey, I said, and he moved his head.

All those palms are good for nothing now, he said to himself.

The light falls through the shutters green with leaves. His paths on the matting shine. If you knew nothing of the house, you would know of him from the shine. You would say: There is someone here who walks and walks between the shutters. Someone who leans with his arms on the window-sills to watch the sea.

A house is a conch, he said; and I thought of the sound.

And of other shells, that roar inside like the sea or like palms, but lie in your hand so small and closed and still.


Well, I said, let’s take a stab with a pin, and let that be where it started. You guess Osiwa three months ago, he guesses Guadalcanal twenty-seven years ago. Plenty of room in between.

Futility. Am I the only one who sees, the only bystander?

If anyone wants to know what I think, I think some people could spend their time more profitably than in humbugging around the islands in a boat paid for by the tax-payer. The
they’re calling it today. That shows the seriousness of the occasion. I said to the ADO: ‘Is that your tub from Osiwa, old man, that you’re talking about, because we don’t know her here by that name. She’s the
,’ I said, ‘the
, and very appropriate, too. The only thing that’s keeping that crate afloat,’ I said, ‘is the magic of an old fellow in Vaimuna, but you wouldn’t know about that. Take my advice,’ I said, ‘stay at home with your sinabada on dry land as long as you can, and if you can’t, then wear your Jesus boots, that’s what I think.’

The futility. The thing is ended. That was the point.

Why bother at my age with appearances? I know what I feel. Very little, to tell the truth: no shock, no loss, like the young ones. But still something, and what I feel is not curiosity. I’d tell some of them that, if they wanted to know, I’d tell them straight.

The futility.

But they must know, they say, where it began, for the sake of their files. Just a formality, to have it in black and white. And then it will be there forever, lying on a shelf, turning grey.

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