Long after missionaries and Europeans settled on the coast of New Guinea in the 19th century, the mountainous interior remained unexplored. As recently as the 1920s, outsiders believed the mountains, which run the length of the island from east to west, were too steep and rugged for anyone to live there. But when gold was discovered 40 miles inland, prospectors went north across the Coral Sea to seek their fortunes. Among them were three brothers from Queensland, Australia: Michael, James and Daniel Leahy, the children of Irish immigrants, who in the early 1930s hiked to the top of the ridges with a group of native porters and gun bois (or armed guards) from the coast.
In the highlands the Leahys found wide, fertile valleys, groomed with garden plots that were later estimated to feed a million inhabitants sorted into hundreds of tribes and clans. The highlanders lived in huts of timber and kunai grass, used stone tools and fought with wooden spears and arrows. Just as white settlers had been unaware of their existence, the highlanders had no idea that anyone lived beyond the mountains.
At first, they suspected the white men were spirits, or maybe lightning come to earth. More curious than afraid, they traded with the white men, sweet potatoes and pigs and women in exchange for steel axes and shells (plentiful on the coast, but rare and highly prized in the highlands). When the expedition encountered new tribes, Michael “Mick” Leahy, the oldest brother and acknowledged leader, would shoot a pig to demonstrate his superior firepower. If a tribal “big man” tried to rally his warriors into a raiding party, Mick and his gun bois would shoot a few of them, too.
The Leahys traipsed through the highlands until, in 1933, they struck a claim near what is now Mount Hagen. There they built an airstrip, with friendly locals stamping the dirt flat in endless sing-sings, and settled in to make a modest fortune dredging shiny rocks from the streams. In time, the Leahys became famous for “opening” the interior to the outside world, and Mount Hagen grew into one of the country’s largest cities.
Nearly 50 years later, Bob Connolly, then a young journalist in Sydney, met Robin Anderson at the Australian Broadcasting Company, where they both worked making documentaries for television. The two fell in love and began looking for independent projects. One evening, at dinner with a friend who happened to be working on an oral history of the colonization of New Guinea, they learned that Mick Leahy, besides being a prospector and explorer, was also an amateur photographer—and not only had he brought a still camera and a movie camera on his expeditions, but his films and photographs were rumored to have survived.
Robin tracked down one of Mick Leahy’s sons in the coastal Papua New Guinea town of Lae, who went into his attic and retrieved 11 canisters of film. What was more, Robin heard stories that there were people in the highlands who still remembered when the white men first came. After flying back to Sydney, she soon returned—this time with Bob, along with camera equipment, and the two spent months retracing the Leahys’ original route.
The resulting film, First Contact, was released in 1983. It was a remarkable achievement, combining Mick’s jerky black-and-white footage and photographs of his encounters with the highlanders with Bob and Robin’s interviews with native men and women who had been there. Intercut with those were lengthy sit-downs with the two surviving Leahy brothers, both by then very old men and long settled in the highlands. (Mick had died in 1978.) Bob and Robin produced the film in the format to which they were accustomed: 54 minutes, television length, shot by a hired crew, narrated by a professional voice actor. A reconstruction of an archetypal story like this one—among the last encounters between two different cultures who had no knowledge of the other—must usually be dredged from diaries and ships’ logs and other centuries-old accounts and recreated from fragments, from dust. In this case, though, there was no need to guess at how the highlanders and the white men saw each other, to puzzle it out from stray clues: they all looked into a camera and spoke for themselves. “We not only have Cortez on the Aztecs,” Bob told friends. “We have the Aztecs on Cortez!” [Continue reading…]
Don’t miss the latest posts at Attention to the Unseen: Sign up for email updates.