A way into the centre appeared in 1933. At the Museum in Sydney
Jock met a member of the Zoology Department of Oxford University.
It was a chance that affected his life both physically and culturally,
although at the time it was not clear where it would lead, except
to the excitement of new territory - the New Hebrides Islands
(now Vanuatu) in the South Pacific Ocean - and further zoological
Dr. John Baker was an Oxford don - typical, it is tempting to
say, so well did he seem to fit the myth - tall, bespectacled,
with a precision and lucidity of speech that would have cut like
a knife through the casual blur of Australian talk. A great-nephew
of the 19th Century African explorer Sir Samual Baker, he was
leading an Oxford University Exploration Club expedition exploring
Espiritu Santo, the largest of the New Hebrides group of islands,
and conducting researches in the field of reproductive physiology.
This latter would combine detailed meteorological records with
physiological studies on five groups of animals and several plants
'in an endeavour to determine the existence, periodicity and proximate
causes of breeding seasons in one of the most uniform climates
in the world.' The phenomenon of seasonal breeding was known
and remarked upon centuries before Christ and yet was still mysterious.
Dr Baker had visited the islands before; he was intrigued by
the mystery and hoped to find clues to it with this scientific
study. The other two aims of the expedition were to study the
anthropology of the Sakau tribe, especially depopulation, and
to climb and map the mostly unexplored mountain regions of the
island wherever possible.
Baker and other members of the expedition were obliged by academic
commitments to return to Oxford. Another member, Tom Harrisson,
who had no such encumbrances, but ambitions and plans of his own,
was to continue until they found someone else suitable to take
on the work and be inducted into its intricacies. Baker decided
to recruit in Sydney. After many enquiries he approached the
Australian Museum and met Tom Iredale, who later, as a sprightly
ninety year old, declared emphatically: 'I was responsible for
getting Jock on that expedition - wonderfully resourceful - I
knew he was ideal for the work and the responsibility.' Iredale's
confidence was justified. John Baker wrote to Jock after seven
months: 'Thank you very much indeed for the splendid help you
have given the expedition, which I hope to have the opportunity
partly to repay to you. We couldn't find anyone in the least
degree suitable till suddenly you turned up and at once appeared
to us all as the ideal man for the job.'
So, having signed up for the expedition (Baker sent him a list
of the Oxford University Exploration Club rules to be signed and
returned), Jock sailed out of Port Jackson on February 8th, 1934
on the inter-island steamer S.S. Morinda. She called in
at Norfolk Island and a week later arrived in the port capital
of the group, Vila; then on to Malekula and at last to the largest
island, Espiritu Santo, which was then mountainous and unexplored
jungle fringed by a scattering of plantations, a hospital run
by French Catholic nuns, a gaol, a Residency - outpost of the
crazy Anglo-French condominium government - and a smattering of
He arrived in Hog Harbour on his twenty third birthday, February
17th, 1934. The expedition headquarters was a collection of huts
at the edge of the jungle on the east coast - 'above and behind,
towering over all, is the immense coral plateau of Sakau. Raised
by some prehistoric submarine uplift it is densely covered with
jungle and is the home of the Sakau warriors, forever fighting,
black musketeers of Santo.' And there he found Tom Harrisson,
the young man who would stay on to show him the ropes: long,
dark hair, luxuriant beard and wearing a minimum of strange garments.
They were an extraordinary pair to be thrown together in this
isolated situation. Almost the same age, they had liked each
other on sight in Sydney but in the confines of a jungle clearing
the difference in their background and experience and the likeness
of their strength of character made a mix that exactly matched
the volcanic landscape. They had a common language and responsibility
to get the work done, but for the first two weeks it seemed easier
to understand the Melanesians and their preoccupation with intersex
pigs and tribal warfare than it was to come to terms with each
other. All Jock's intelligence and quick wit were still set in
something of a raw state - like a sculptor's first clay. Tom
was polished with English elitist education, no matter how scruffy
the role he now chose to play. Sensitive to the difference, Jock
reacted with aggressive protective ploys - boastful and exaggerated.
He would not see himself put down.
Harrisson had come out kicking from his privileged education.
From Harrow he went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge, but after
a University Exploration Club expedition to Borneo he 'quit' that
University and crossed over to Oxford to work with John Baker
in the Department of Zoology where he 'regularly walked the city
not only barefoot but with red toenails.' That idiosyncrasy and
other inventive baiting of authority did not appeal to the Professor
of Zoology who directed '(by telegram from Java) that I be expelled
from his department ... '
Before this he had spent a sobering number of years at Harrow.
'Harrow school - spire on the hill, lights gleaming out over
the plain' Jock wrote after he visited it with Tom in 1937; a
school where tradition permeated every corner and every rule;
some excellent things and some 'which rightly belong in the 10th
Century.' Chapel with the boys in top hats and tail coats and
white collars vying with the winter snow - and the library 'the
original old room where among scores and scores of others (every
available space taken) Byron's name is cut with matchless artistry
in the old panelling'. Even for a rebellious 'old boy' such a
school was an imprint; the years of isolation in an atmosphere
where reality is distorted by the pressures of history, the continuity
of tradition, a sense of difference.
Despite his interest in ornithology, Tom appeared to have had
an even greater interest in off-beat travel, having been previously
to Lapland and Borneo, where he stirred the Museum authorities
in Sarawak for good measure - as a prelude, it turned out, to
the stirring he continued as Director of the same Museum years
They were unusual and talented young men. Their backgrounds were
literally a world apart, their temperaments quite different.
But they had drive, ambition, bravery, curiosity, imagination
and humour in common - and an unending delight in poking, stirring
and pricking pompous authority. They upset people of settled
views with their disregard for conventions so hard won; bare
feet in "civilised" corridors, bare words, the flaunting
of their difference. They would have been more in tune with the
days of expanding Empire (instead of perhaps now sensing its demise),
the great explorations in Africa, the restless Elizabethans;
with the men who explored the world in cockleshells.
But back to the beginning in the jungle of Espiritu Santo on February
17th. 'We arrive at Hog Harbour - I like the place immensely.'
Jock is immediately immersed in watching the natives, a visit
to a plantation where there had been a knifing, work, flies, birds
and intersex pigs which were the cultural currency of the Sakau
warriors. Intersex pigs would have been an interesting study
in themselves but it was extremely difficult to examine them owing
to the esteem in which they were held culturally. A remarkable
social hierarchy was based on the number of these pigs - Ndre
- which a man could accumulate. 'In Sakau a man prizes intersex
pigs above every commodity except his women.' The Ndre
is genetically a modified boar 'of which there are several kinds,
each classified according to the arrangement of his external genitalia.'
Within the classification are grades. These were picturesquely
named - Feminine Intersex (which was indistinguishable from a
normal sow), Sprouting Coconut, Sewn-up, Fruit Bat, Rat, Hidden
and Worm - all describing the appearance of the aberrant genitalia.
The Sakaus also liked to make these pigs more distinguished by
knocking out the upper canines. As the teeth have persistent
pulps, the lower canines, lacking an opposing grinding surface,
grow unchecked into a graceful curve.
Two days after his arrival Jock was deeply into the work. He
was learning new techniques. It was necessary to measure every
aspect of the climate, including ultra-violet light, with the
instruments set up in a clearing in the jungle. 'Each month between
the tenth and the twentieth I have to dissect and preserve the
gonads of thirty fruit bats, fifty insectivorous bats, sixty lizards,
thirty Pachycephala (pectoralis) and thirty Trichoglossus.' The
precise measurements of an animal's weight and observations of
the condition of its reproductive organs were vital to the research
being done at Oxford. '[I] have given the natives the cartridges,
guns, & will pay them as they bring the birds in - either
tobacco (worth 3d) or silver. I've put a notice on the tree with
the price and native name of the bird. Our native servant is
a gem and invaluable.' He was learning the ropes fast. The native
men he refers to here were from the local mission - the Sakau
warriors in the jungle were interested in much larger game.
On March 3rd, two weeks after his arrival, there were rumblings
from the plateau. 'Harrisson has just blown in and is quite excited.
It appears that there has been rather a decent murder up near
Lelek.' One or more of the Sakaus from over a day's journey away
had, for complex tribal reasons, shot a Lelek man as he came out
of his house at dawn. The Leleks sent out a punitive expedition,
but had no chance of catching the man. On the same day at 1.30p.m.
Jock exclaimed 'News is to hand! Swift retribution took
place after the murder this morning and within a few hours it
was avenged. By that I don't mean that the murderer johnnie was
killed; but, in fact, one of his fellow tribesmen was, and everything
is now considered in order by the Leleks.' Eight warriors, armed
with old rifles, had dashed past Harrisson, who was making his
way back to camp. Further up the track, meeting a man from the
murderer's village they had, all eight, shot him - a man who was
possibly not even aware of the first shooting.
Later Jock viewed the corpse - 'quite an elevating experience.'
The man was tall, young, in the prime of life. He had half a
dozen holes in him, 'one over the heart itself enough to cause
instant death', and much of his intestines protruded. He was
tied with vines to a pole being horizontally slung in the trees
- about four feet from the ground - in the native mission burial
ground. 'Although he is a "fella b'long darkness" they
are giving him a Christian burial. I guess if alive this fact
would infuriate him. He seems very, very dead though.' Tom,
in his diary of the same period, gives an almost identically graphic
and gory description of the corpse, ending 'I have seen no one
It is not certain that either of them had seen any body at all
dead before this. Their excitement at such an extraordinary experience
was evident. But the animosity of the first two weeks was still
spiking comment. Tom goes on: 'Marshall was mightily & journalistically
pleased by all this. He photoed the corpse, grave, etc. But
mine was the ecstasy & understanding. I really do feel excited
that such absurd, young, airgun people exist and treat life like
this.' Their perceptions of the meaning of life might have been
a bit different but their use of words such as "elevating"
and "ecstasy" demonstrates a shared sense of wonder
at the deadness of this innocent young man.
Tom continued 'In the evening I felt very happy, for Marshall
had taken his Australia to Reynolds and Inskip.'
Suddenly hostilities came to an abrupt end. On March 13th Tom
wrote: 'Jock and I were on splendid terms all day. The turning
point in our relationship was the showdown we had over Hirundo,
swallows nesting in rocks!! We have today made a plan for an
expedition to the N.W. Territory (of Australia), Daly Creek area
... desert fauna - survey mammals, owl, parrot, plants, ecology,
blacks.. Only difficulty leadership. M keen on big leader
stuff - "intolerable to be under anyone else in one's own
country." [I] said if I come no one could lead me. Never
intend to be bossed again. M. finally accepted a co-leadership.
But he was not really satisfied. He has a boss mind.'
This expedition never eventuated. Two "boss minds"!
They were, however, collaborating on a comparison of the birds
of the New Hebrides and Australia and were working on a comprehensive
paper on the birds of the New Hebrides. Tom reiterated on March
14th: 'Jock & I on splendid terms', although, with obvious
exaggeration, he went on - 'Once an hour one (usually he) of us
gets hot under the collar & goes nationalistic. But it is
no longer tiring or nervous living together; indeed it is definitely
FUN. J. has another sore - now four in all, all bad, and his
right ankle is showing that horrible pimpling that got so bad
There is constant talk in both their diaries of each others sores
and fevers, dysentery and leprosy among the natives, malaria and
one of the government men with blackwater fever for the third
time. Jock talked of jagged coral disguised in foliage always
ready to gouge a new wound, blowflies that deposited maggots on
their blankets which then entered their open flesh, mosquitos,
ants, spiders, cockroaches so numerous they scuttled round their
feet nibbling at toe-nails while they were eating; 'they flew
from wall to wall, gradually reducing calendars, photographs and
record papers to flimsy ribbons; they ate holes in the bellows
of my camera and shaved the titles from our books.' It was no
tropic idyll; a body-wearing, tearing climate; 'each day at
meal times Tom and I sat with our scarred legs in kerosene buckets
of lysol and hot water - and we did much of our work in the kerosene
tins each evening closely examining the lesions and jealously
regarding each other's progress.'
All this time there was talk of outright war between the musket-carrying
tribesmen. This was making their work of collecting specimens
and even their walk to the meteorological station difficult and
dangerous. Their favourite servant Sedhi became involved in the
general trouble. Some years before, he had lent money as well
as two intersex pigs to a man of one of the waring tribes, who
slipped this debt and many others. Sedhi was one in a long line
of people with similar grievances, and the slippery one was very
likely to be killed. Sedhi was concerned he might be blamed.
Jock and Tom were working to extricate him from danger. Jock
sent off a letter to the Resident Commissioner at Vila densely
packed with the complications of the affair, ending: 'I regard
Sedhi more highly than most white men of my acquaintance and would
naturally not like to hear of him being punished in the event
of Tavanuh being killed by one of his numerous creditors. I would
therefore like this letter to be filed and consulted in the event
of future trouble in this connection.'
"Pig" incidents were constantly boiling up and another
one put Sedhi in danger of being killed himself. Jock and Tom
decided he should sleep in the house between theirs. They were
all in danger. 'Harrisson had arranged a simple gadget which
will warn him if anyone tries to shoot him over the side of his
house. He also keeps his door tied. I don't. I depend on my
ears and my automatic.' They decided they must carry arms on
the walk to the isolated meteorological station.
The work went on. He collected butterflies for the Sydney Museum,
went to the swiflet caves, did the meteorological readings, dissected
animals ranging from tiniest birds to large fruit bats, and he
and Tom had to be constantly writing up their results. As well
they were "hospital" and general counsellor to the natives
and their piccaninnies who looked to them for magic potions and
resolutions. On March 20th: 'Today I take over officially -
now in charge.' They were happy with the large quota of fruit
bats which had come in the night before - 15 females and 25 males,
a ratio of females to males which strangely paralleled that in
the human population of the islands. 'Harrisson is waiting for
Oliver to come and take him to the Banks Group. I'll then be
Eventually it became clear that Oliver would not turn up to collect
Tom. He delayed his departure month after month as he and Jock
did interesting exploratory trips. He did anthropological work
which he decided was his real interest rather than the ornithology
on which he had been working with John Baker. But they were still
getting results and working on their paper on the birds. It was
in those months that a strange and strong friendship was forged
out of talking, verbal fighting, one-upmanship, companionship,
love-hate interdependence - indeed like all the confusing facets
of two siblings fighting over family status.
One day - 'to me was entrusted the most important skin so far
made at Hog Harbour - Hypotaenidia phillipensis. It was
a pleasure & I took tons of time & made the best skin
I ever made - a beauty. Natives crowded round holding lights,
whispering remarks. Stomach: Black dirty substance, intermixed
with white shell grit. Female - with ovary on right side.
What a bird!! (and what a skin!).' He took tremendous delight
in skilful dissection. Tom Harrisson acknowledged it in 1959:
'With his one arm below curly hair and pugnacious jaw, he could
dissect a flower-pecker with tissue paper skin - and skill.'
You may wonder how a one-armed man carried out such delicate surgery
on tiny creatures. He used pins where another would have used
fingers and had extraordinary control with his one right hand.
Always inventive, he once used a half coconut held between his
knees as a dissecting board when deep in jungle with the mountain
men, who were hugely amused by the performance.
Now in Hog Harbour the seasonal hurricanes were threatening, barometer
needles dropping, seas rising, wind keeping all boats to the shore;
villagers, their precious pigs, even the despised dogs all sheltering
in their dark houses. Jock went to make the meteorological readings,
forcing his way almost joyfully through the rising gale, with
bread-fruit trees swaying overhead and coconut trees dropping
their leaden fruit dangerously around. At four in the morning
Tom crawled into Jock's hut with his bed. His own was full of
water - and the dining shelter had disappeared. The whole place
was in a tattered shambles. The next morning Jock went to make
the readings again. He approached through the wrecked jungle
with trepidation expecting the instruments to be smashed and useless
as he picked his way over huge tree limbs lying in tangles of
vines and saw the rain-drenched sky through gaping holes in the
jungle canopy. But miraculously the delicate instruments, though
half buried in debris and fallen creepers, had escaped intact.
Two days later, on March 27th, when the glass had risen and the
sun was scorching the debris, they decided to set off for a delayed
trip to the North-West Peninsula. This was to be fitted in before
the important breeding-season routine began for Jock on April
10th. The North-West Peninsula is the northern extremity of a
range of mountains running the length of the west coast of Santo
and, though the southern peaks had been thoroughly investigated
by the expedition, this northern section had not. The enormous
northern bay of which it forms the west wing was known as one
of the most unhealthy and inhospitable regions of the western
Pacific. Few people visited it and those who did left hurriedly
- even the missionaries' visits were short. But two Britons hung
on there working plantations on the coastal strip where three
centuries before de Quiros had landed, thinking he had discovered
Terra australis incognita. He called it Baya de San Phillipe
y Santiago but this saintly name had been overcome by the simply
descriptive "Big Bay".
It was necessary to go by boat from Hog Harbour on the east coast,
around the eastern wing of the bay formed by the huge coral plateau
of Sakau, call in at Robertson's plantation and leave from there
to walk into the mountains of the North West Peninsula. So they
set out in the launch into seas which were still wild after the
hurricane. They rounded the eastern Cape Quiros in the dusk,
rolling into Big Bay as the full moon rose. As they approached
land they found the sea filled with huge tree trunks and extraordinary
debris. There were no lights on land to help them find their
position, which they thought odd. They cruised beyond the breakers
hopefully flashing torches and finally were answered with a single
glimmer. Getting ashore through boiling surf in a tiny collapsible
canvas dinghy caused damage to people and goods. Tom's leg wound
was opened up again. Jock was intact but his watch and automatic
were soaked - no minor crisis in those days and that climate.
He dunked them in oil and - 'fixed H's leg.'
But they instantly forgot their minor woes when Robertson met
them with the words 'I've lost everything!' In the full moonlight
the heart-breaking scene was revealed - the house and store had
completely disappeared, huge coconut trees lay torn up by the
roots, the beautiful cutter lay spread in a battered wreck and
two hundred bullocks washed out to sea. It had been a series
of tidal waves that came roaring in on the morning of the hurricane,
higher than houses. Robertson had seen them coming but there
was no time to save even his cash box as ten waves in fifteen
minutes swept away the whole fabric of his life in Big Bay. By
some miracle no lives were lost, though seven miles of coast and
several native villages were wrecked. The food and tobacco the
friends brought was a life-saver but now they discovered that
their exploration trip was out of the question. While Tom and
Robertson set out for Hog Harbour to get some more stores Jock
explored the damage along the coast. For miles the sea had gained
on the land, trees were strewn about like straws, native villages
had disappeared and river mouths changed position.
When the boat came back with stores and food for the stricken
people there were still several days in hand to re-survey some
of the more important rivers in order to bring earlier maps up
to date. They collected many specimens which were unobtainable
in Sakau. At this time too Jock recorded being bitten by one
or more anopheles mosquitos, the carriers of malaria, which he
found and identified in his net. It was not good. Malaria could
not be taken lightly in those times of no remedy but quinine.
They were keen to see something of the mountain people despite
the frustrated exploration of the region and decided to utilise
the few days before April 5th, when the launch was due to return
to take Jock back to Hog Harbour. They split up to do some personal
trips. Jock climbed into the dripping jungle of the mountains
delighted to be spared the vicious tracks of the coast and constant
vigilance against jagged coral rock. Through pidgin and interpreters
he communicated with the mountain men. He found them friendly
and apparently healthy but sadly thought their days of village
life were numbered. He was interested that Tata, the old chief
'disclaimed any knowledge of or belief in life after death.'
It seemed strange that people with so many other superstitions
'did not subscribe in some form or other to mankind's universal
insurance scheme against oblivion.'
He dined in the chief's house on tubers and small bits of bird
and pig cooked in banana leaves over hot stones. He was impressed
by the natural way they treated him - as a respected guest, gave
him the freedom of the village, made no attempt to ingratiate
themselves or to cadge tobacco or matches. He was given another
man's bed in the mens' quarters, his gratitude for such generosity
somewhat tinged with unease when he discovered in the morning
light that the man was a leper. He listened with delight to plaintive
bamboo music, watched a dance and collected and dissected many
birds. Then reluctantly back to the coast and, he hoped, the
But no launch. For two days no launch.
'If it doesn't come l'm in a helluva position - no transport at
all - will have to walk thru war-zone & even then there is
no water & a perfect maze of small indefinite tracks.' Guides
would be worse than a problem - the coastal natives were by now
thoroughly afraid of the Sakau Peninsula and the waring tribes.
They were proof against any persuasion. 'Most say "no savvy
track" but others are more honest and say "me plenty
fright".' Even Robertson's special guide refused to go.
It was imperative he get back by the 10th to start the breeding
season work. The only way to Hog Harbour was over the Sakau plateau.
'I'll take Robertson's compass and try to make it on my own.'
He made plans for the lightest of gear - no mosquito net 'but
I must take the risk. I'm going into the thing with my eyes open.
I can't let the expedition down. If we miss the month's work
(quota) it will upset things to hell, and possibly ruin the whole
of the work which has already been done. Also, as I'm the only
Australian with the expedition, it will have been the Australian
who let it down. So I've got to go.'
They all kept their eyes glued to the sombre outline of Cape Quiros
but no sign appeared. Jock contemplated the probable negligence
of the native mission teacher (who was supposed to bring the boat)
with rising anger as he thought of the risks - malarial mosquitos,
thirst, getting bushed in the jungle and shot by hostile savages.
And he realised with sudden horror that he was a day behind in
his calculation of dates; it was now the 6th, not the 5th. The
10th was perilously close; 'immediate departure essential. I
leave at 2 p.m. today.' This was despite the warnings and concerns
of Robertson and two friends. He had spent part of the morning
writing letters to his mother, Ellis Troughton, Ernie Austen and
John Baker, explaining the circumstances. 'R. will post the letters
if I fail; if I get through the letters will be destroyed.'
He decided to leave at 1p.m. He gave his letters to Robertson,
shook hands and set off. 'I looked towards Cape Quiros - almost
instantly - I saw a speck. I yelled; Robby yelled. It was the
It seemed there was no negligence. Tom, who was now down in the
south, when returning from Hog Harbour with Robertson, had told
them to come on this day - the 6th - though Robertson was sure
Tom had said the 5th. The crisis had passed but Jock's attitude
to it was an interesting indication of character.
Back in Hog Harbour the work went on - continual collecting, skinning,
dissecting. There were also anthropological observations: the
cult of intersex pigs, the rarity of polygamy, the unusual predominance
of males (for every 100 women there were 160 males), small families
of only two or three children and the efficacy of herbal contraceptives
and abortifacients. It was difficult to get details of the latter;
although Dr John Baker, working on the island of Espiritu Santo
in 1927, noted that abortion 'is obtained by drinking infusions
of the leaves of Dracaena and other plants.'
There was finally a trip to the North West Peninsula, this time
successfully accomplished. They took only bare essentials as
carriers had to be recruited village to village - a hopeful rather
than certain part of planning. The inventory was sparse: essential
instruments for surveying and field work, guns, ammunition, photographic
gear and one tin of food per night. As a psychological luxury
they took a half bottle of Scotch and George Bernard Shaw's Mrs
Warren's Profession which they read to each other, rationing
it by the night like the Scotch and the food. Their objects were
to make a map, determine the tallest peak in the north-west mountains,
establish a camp at the summit, explore surrounding ranges and
make collections of cloud-belt derivatives of creatures they had
collected in the lowlands.
In pouring rain they set out for a gruelling slog to the mountains,
cris-crossing swollen rivers, then climbing upward along slippery
ridges, edging around mountain-sides. Roots and loose debris
formed their only track. They slithered down into valleys and
up again past the gardens of Wanapunini - 'a poem of pagan agriculture
terraced into the mountain-side' - and precariously perched villages
until finally the very reluctant carriers dropped their load at
4000 feet near the summit of the range. They cut a clearing and
rapidly built a watertight 'house' at the edge of a huge gorge,
overlooking the surrounding ranges, 'a tree overhanging the abysmal
gorge was converted into a first-rate look-out.' At noon they
left for the peak, cutting their way to the top and then discovering
to their immense disappointment that it was only 4350 feet - well
short of the records of the southern part of the range.
The next day the rain poured down and everything was sodden.
Pale grey vapour eddied past the door and enveloped their eyrie.
Visibility was limited to fifty feet and the distant roar of
a waterfall was the only reminder of a world beyond the oppressive
blanket of cloud. Jock went searching for birds through the streaming
ferns and oozing mosses 'everywhere the earth is concealed with
loose unstable piles of rotting vegetation; this again is covered
by mosses and lichens which, with the gently rolling mists, create
an impression of unreality - as though one had, like the bright
lad who ascended the beanstalk, climbed into a world apart.'
He found birds and collected several - 'fluttering fantails, slender honey-eaters, dumpy little warblers, sooty blackbirds.' Birds so common that they rarely collected them in the lowlands were valuable when gathered from the tops, for nearly all would present some zonal variation in size and plumage. But there was one bird they badly needed to collect from this environment - Cichlornis, for whom 'life is something to be embroidered with melody.' Jock's description of its capture is a clear illustration of two strong opposing facets in his character:
'We had a battle royal, that brilliant rufus bird and I. For
ten minutes it was a duel between a fleeting shadow, little more
than a moving voice and a clumsy human who lay wet, and motionless
save for moving lips, which made noises that filled little Cichlornis
with an aching curiosity. She succumbed at length, and sped swiftly
to within a couple of feet of the gun-barrel, delicately poised
as she regarded me with bright enquiring eyes. I couldn't shoot
for fear of blowing her to pieces at so short a range - still
I lay motionless, and without warning the vivacious ruddy sprite
broke into a trilling song. It was ventriloquial, it sounded
above me and behind; for a moment, I couldn't believe it was
the bird before me which sang. But her parted bill, quivering
throat and constantly flickering tail, soon convinced me that
it was indeed "my" bird which sang so spiritedly. She
moved away, and once more returned at my call - again too close,
then, at last, at a suitable range. I absolutely hated to shoot,
but we needed specimens of Cichlornis badly.'
The dichotomy was always there - the perceptive poetic appreciation,
a true tenderness such as he would also lavish on a piccaninny,
a sick person or a small ailing wombat, counterpoised against
a seemingly ruthless strength of purpose where his work was concerned.
Looking over the collection of more than thirty reviews of The
Black Musketeers, the book he wrote about the expedition,
it is obvious that some of the reviewers were unable to come to
terms with it. For instance, the Sunday Observer: 'One
dare not criticise Mr. Marshall for the age in which he lives
because his answer is sure to be ready and sharp, though one does
feel it hard that the generous impulses of a writer moved by beauty,
and inclined to poetic diction should be so easily chilled by
knowledge of facts that never respond to wine and song. There
was that rare and elusive little bird in the rain forest ... What
good were its sexual organs to him?' Jock's answer to this could
have been ready and sharp - they were of considerable use in the
wider question. But the understandable criticism poses the continuing
dilemma of the use of animals in scientific research. It was
not a dilemma for Jock. He would not condone cruelty, but he
saw none in instant death - he saw it as infinitely less cruel
than the end which might lie in wait for an animal if left to
the complex and probably painful ways of dying 'naturally'.
The next morning he was up listening to the dawn chorus at five
and noting which birds were singing. He was so entranced by the
sun coming up behind the eastern peaks of Sakau that he filled
eight pages of his diary with a description of almost every moment
and change in the kaleidoscopic blaze of colour and subtleties
of cloud mass - such a detailed description of tone and hue that
one could paint a picture from it. He ended, 'The sun is again
imprisoned in a fortress of blue-black; a fortress with walls
and bars of silver, turquoise, ruby and gold. The birds' choruses
have lulled. The wind still sighs, the blow-flies blow. Distances
seem magically shortened. The world at 4000 feet is a cold, yet
altogether grand place. Guadalcanaria is calling. It
is now 6.45.'
Back at camp, with a touch of embarrassment; 'I have written
about eight pages of guff about a sunrise & my impressions
thereon. I have photographed it & photographed the last sections
of mountains.' It had not rained for two days, the bird results
were a success, they had finished the survey and had finished
Mrs. Warren's Profession. They packed and went down the
mountain to meet their guides - 'the ridges everywhere are sun-kissed,
the valleys are dark. Au revoir mountain peaks and dark green
So back to Hog Harbour - routine, cockroaches, coral and coconuts.
The coral rock gashed another hole in Jock's ankle which failed
to heal properly. After an injudicious tight strapping by a young
medical officer on a visiting ship, the whole thing blew up into
a swollen red mess and it became imperative to go to the French
hospital, at Canal du Segonde in the south of the island, lest
he lose his foot. On the way there he not only nearly lost his
foot but his life when the launch lost its rudder. In wild seas
it was plunging and slithering about helplessly from trough to
crest of huge waves. 'Standing like a stork on one leg, I found
myself clinging to a fixture yelling rapid instructions to the
frightened crew. Most of the words were lost in the wind, but
the boys got the idea, and, hanging on desperately, began to
dismantle a large awning pole and at the same time bale feverishly
in the bottom of the launch. By now almost everyone was seasick,
but the boys stuck wonderfully to their tasks.' And eventually,
with a piece of solid wood nailed precariously to the pole they
managed to zigzag their way dangerously to the coast.
And so began weeks of pain, boredom and frustration in the hospital.
He was looked after by 'heroic nuns of high principles but little
medical training', and a small French doctor who shook hands each
time before he dug into the wound without any form of pain killer
- "de Sade" Jock called him. On the 11th day the doctor
declared the wound to be worse than the day he arrived and said
no more could be done with it; that he should return to 'Australie'.
This being impossible, more powders and snipping and digging
were tried. On the 13th day he was thoroughly frustrated; a
promised French dictionary had not turned up - all talk was in
"beche-de-mer", the French equivalent of "pidgin",
perfectly adequate for communication, but Jock was bored 'for
the first time in my life ... Read all my books: hole no better;
sick of the cooking, environment, everything.' He contemplated
sourly the New Hebrides islands since 1887 - 'the most inefficient
and unfair system of government in the civilised world ... There
is a Gilbertian court of justice maintaining both a French and
British judge, with the presiding judge and prosecutor neutral
and nominally of Spanish nationality. French residents are subject
to French law; Britons to British.' The natives suffered between
the two, as Jock was observing, since the Condominium gaol was
next door to the hospital. Then came the expected malaria to
add to his tortures. Recovering from this, he started to write
poetry. After the third poem he noted 'so-so like the others'.
Actually, it was rather more so-so than the others; had he stayed
in hospital longer he might have improved.
Suddenly one day the sister exclaimed 'Meat 'e come up!' 'Fresh
meat?' said Jock dubiously - 'Oui, Oui.'
Eventually he engineered his return to Hog Harbour. Tom was waiting
to go off on a trip of his own so Jock rigged up a cart in which
the boys could wheel him to the meteorological station so that
there could be no accidental interruption to the vital readings.
Later he hopped everywhere, gaining Olympian prowess. Whenever
there was a lull in work he amused himself playing games and joking
with the natives. 'I have achieved great brilliance. Not on
zoological matters - that will come later - but in Pidgin English
- I have tried and succeeded in translating risque stories to
the natives! Sedhi nearly died when I told him rather a good
one.' The bushmen who came to the camp occasionally, were silently
sympathetic about his ankle and brought him little presents.
One day a skull turned up and Jock started making a small collection
of these for the Museum which he arranged on a shelf behind his
bed. He discovered that one of them was a Lelek chief, many years
dead, to whom he gave pride of place. With nothing better to
do one morning he placed a lighted cigarette between its grinning
teeth and noted with satisfaction that it remained alight. At
that moment Nwarghulul arrived to get the washing, but dropped
everything in horror - a smoking skull! She vanished in a cloud
of anguished wailing to find Sedhi. 'Sedhi laughed uneasily,
but was badly shaken and it was several days before he was finally
convinced that I did not need constant surveillance.'
They were having financial troubles - money not arriving from
England. They were down to their last few cartridges and using
old gramophone needles 10 times each - 'all food native (almost)
- yet enjoying myself & don't give a bugger.' Tom came back
from the south and they discussed arrangements for him to go finally
to Malekula as planned - he wanted to do some anthropological
work among the "Big Mambas", a tribe alleged to be well
organised in cannibalism.
So on August 1st Jock noted cryptically: 'Harrisson left this
morning - wonder if I'll ever see him again?' In some respects
this is a strange statement. They had made quite firm commitments
to meet again, having planned another expedition. It could be
put down to the threat of cannibalism or some argument not commented
on but it seems more likely that his now close understanding of
Tom led to the belief that Tom might be seduced away to some other
more attractive adventure.
Meantime he continued the work, his ankle improving slowly. He
nursed Sedhi through a bad attack of malaria, getting the doctor
to him three times. On August 20th he noted that ultra-violet
radiation was becoming considerable. 'Hot weather necessitates
that I should not miss a single Quartz reading. Beastly bore
really; but it won't be long now!' It was nearly time to wind
up the research and return to Sydney in mid September. On August
26th he finished his fruit bat quota and was able to pack up.
He had completed the index to many scientific works and was satisfied.
Finally he dismantled the ultra-violet apparatus and threw ink
and other components 'to hell down the paddock & wrenched
the standard up from pure relief', then played "soccer"
with about thirty natives. The Sakaus gave him a farewell "sing-sing"
- in return, he said, for much raspberry jam. Painted warriors
and sedate women danced to the music of pan-pipes and drums in
the tropical dusk and later more wildly around a fire; Piccaninnies
grabbed sticks and 'danced with the women in the manner of their
So, from the S.S. Morinda at sea, after seven months on Espiritu
Santo, he wrote to John Baker: 'It's all over. Gonads despatched
safely; all information re latest work, packing and finance ready
for dispatch. And all gear safely in the hold of the Morinda.
I feel sorry to leave, yet somehow glad it's all over. And have
not yet got used to being minus whiskers for the first time in
about seven months. I shaved last night.'
Back in Oxford it was 1947 before the physiological work of the
expedition was correlated and fully written up. The results showed
that most of the creatures studied had well-marked breeding seasons
despite the fact that the mean temperature of Espiritu Santo was
only 2.4 degrees centigrade higher in the hottest month than in
the coldest. Dr Baker came to the conclusion that 'It seems probable
that the breeding seasons of the animals investigated are regulated
by some altogether unsuspected cause or causes.' It may have
been disappointing for the work not to have produced a more satisfactory
conclusion but it pointed the way to a lot more interesting research.
The New Hebrides was an expansive experience for Jock in almost
every way. It changed his attitude to scientific work. He saw
the possibilities opening out for laboratory research as a natural
corollary of work in the field. It was a concentration of learning
in that bush laboratory. The challenges of work, dangers, sickness,
relationships with Melanesians, planters, missionaries, the incongruities
of the appalling Condominium Government, the plight of the fast-shrinking
native population ravaged by "white" disease, neglect
or interference - it all made for changed thinking. But it was
the time spent with Tom Harrisson in their primitive camp, talking
over the lysol footbaths, that really canalised his ambition.
He wrote to Tom, 'you are the greatest bullshit artist I've ever
met'. Nevertheless, it was Tom's grandiose scheming, scribbling
off letters to such as Julian Huxley, Naomi Mitchison, Admiral
Goodenough; talk of Cambridge, Oxford, London, the Royal Geographical
Society; nostalgia, which he could not mask with his sharp wit,
for the blurred swells of his English landscape, the endless eccentric
traditions to be kicked - it was this above all that gave form
to an ambition growing in Jock's mind. To go to Oxford. He had
already written to Baker probing possibilities.
That ambition was a matter of continuing argument between them.
Tom had no love for universities any longer, no intention of
bothering with a degree; he believed he could teach himself in
the field. But Tom's cultural apostasy meant nothing to Jock.
In fact he was seeing a value in much of what his friend was
trying to discard; the formal scientific training that he knew
he needed for his budding ambition.
Their egos clashed constantly over years in an amused or fiery
blast. In their camps when young they must have made an interesting
visual counterpoint when they faced each other in verbal combat
or at work on each side of the rough table - the fair and the
dark, the passionately rational and the emotionally driven. But
there was always a lot of laughter and they had an unquenchable
curiosity about absolutely everything - from the number of mosquitos
eaten by a spider to the behaviour patterns of 'flappers' (what
a sexist lost word for smart young females!) on the occasional
visiting steamer. They entranced each other with plans to do
great things, flicking ideas about in the insect-ridden air over
the kerosene lights.
One of those New Hebridean ideas solidified into a detailed and practical plan to take an expedition into New Guinea to explore then virtually unknown country in the interior and make a study of the anthropology, zoology and geology of the area. They hoped to interest the Oxford University Exploration Club in it (as they did) but, as it was going to be an extremely costly enterprise, it would certainly be necessary to enthuse other richer sponsors as well. A few days before Tom left Espiritu Santo they signed a three page draft of aims and proposals. They proposed themselves and 'E.E.A. Shackleton - survey and photography' as the three essential personnel. The draft ran through food, money, scientific collections, and much else:
'Cash: To be mainly collected by T.H.H. and administered by him
with critical vote of others. A.J.M. to report at once how much
needed in country, minimum and maximum estimates to allow full
scope in every way.
Decisions in field: Where any danger or schism is involved, majority
vote decides. If minority refuses, majority justified in clubbing
him into a coma and carrying him off - but not to abandon the
Advance plans: A.J.M. responsible here - to fix A1 base, government
support, report on routes, locate untouched areas, investigate
exact dangers and forward report on weapons, technique etc. More
depends on A.J.M. in this than anyone or anything else.
Untimely death: N.G. is a good sort of place to meet an untimely
death. Too bad. Members must clearly realise this. Though we
are not afraid (?) we respect danger. It must make us stop to
think but it should not make us stop.
If any member dies, other members will not respect his dying wishes.
His property on the expedition - clothes, notebooks, photos,
etc. - become the property of the survivors. If it will help
them they will barter his body to the Cannibal Heathen.'
This is amusing but there was serious intent behind it. A later,
soberly-worded submission for the various institutions and individuals
from whom they expected financial backing ended: 'Within a few
years the people of Central New Guinea will probably have been
reached by the patrol-officer, missionary or gold prospector.
Then the opportunity will have been lost for science and history.'
This last prophetic statement was horribly born out. The invasion
was not peaceful or gradual as envisaged. The Japanese invasion
and Australian and American retaliation did not bring calico and
a few steel axes but explosive steel of another sort.
But in 1934, in the comparative quiet before the storm, Harrisson
was confident of finding backers. After his travels on Malekula
he would have more field experience in anthropology but also he
had been on three University Exploration Club expeditions and
was familiar with the requirements of such enterprises. He and
Jock therefore agreed that he should confine himself to raising
funds, which would have to be considerable, and organization in
England; Jock, who had extensive experience of travelling alone,
would go into New Guinea to make a reconnaissance for them. Tom
was also confident he could supply advance expedition funds while
Jock made the probing journey - but there was often a considerable
difference between confidence and practice.
In October of 1934 Tom wrote saying he planned to leave Malekula
by the end of the year. 'Trouble is cash. Practically broke,
and may have to earn my way out. If I get a windfall I'll cable
you.' It is hard to imagine what the windfall might have been
in such a place as Malekula in 1934. But it happened. 'By a
mixture of graft, conceit and adultery I bluffed Vila into giving
me about 300 pounds to do six months as Acting District Officer.'
A little of this arrived in Sydney for the expedition funds.
They had planned to meet in Sydney in mid 1935 and do a lot of
lecturing to raise more money. But Tom did not get to Australia.
Douglas Fairbanks Junior arrived one day at Malekula in his yatch
and excited Tom with interesting prospects for the making of a
film with him about the Big Mambas. Telling Jock of it in a note
on May 16th, 1935, Tom said: 'It's the making of N.G. Apart
from a few minor inconveniences it won't affect you. In view
of this however I expect you to come home [England] via New Guinea
& do a lot there.'
Jock's reply to that high-handed command is not available but
he was both enthused and irritated by Tom's attitudes. Over the
months since they parted there had been an intermittent traffic
of bulging letters to and from Malekula, Tahiti and later London
concerning the expedition and an almost rhythmic recurrence of
changes of plan and promises of money for the New Guinea enterprise.
However, the major concern was covered - Tom forwarded enough
for the fare to New Guinea. Jock felt able to earn what he needed
for other expenses.
After collecting a lot of information he wrote to Tom two close-typed
pages of proposals concerning personnel and possible routes.
His preferred option was to start out from Daru in the South and
work up the Fly River, then strike out for Mount Hagen across
the hundreds of square miles of country only mapped by aerial
surveys. At that time only odd gold prospectors such as the Leahy
brothers had penetrated further than the fringe - there was no
accurate knowledge of the people, fauna, flora or geology of the
country. He stated too hastily 'I don't think it will be necessary
to touch Dutch New Guinea.' He hoped Tom was upholding their
reputations for 'lowering the much vaunted "prestige of the
white race"' and added a postscript that he thought the four
year stay too long 'and I doubt if you'd get good men to go for
four years. 18 months enough for me.'
In December this brought a cannonade of dissent from Malekula.
Tom did not like the routes, did not like the base camp, did
not think Jock had done enough research, did not agree with the
date of departure, which he said was impossible if the expedition
was to be perfectly equipped, capitalised and organized; did
not like Jock's criticism of the four year stay. And continued:
'It will be far best [sic] if you come to England first, next
year (1935). Have some technical scientific contact and training
(I can arrange this) and enlarge your views of science and exploration
in general. In a letter that will follow this I am explaining
my proposals that you return to England with me about October
1935 via Suez. I cannot leave before, as I have no money at all
now ... it is up to you to get every conceivable detail (including
on Dutch N.G., the least known country in the world: it's absurd
to say "we needn't touch it" & dismiss it so summarily).'
And so on: the letter runs to ten pages.
Although he acknowledged some of Tom's criticisms and knew he
needed more zoological schooling Jock was furious at the patronising
tone of this letter and almost immediately applied to do first
year Zoology at Sydney University (this could be done separately
from the full science course). He would not contemplate any 'half-arsed
technical training.' He was aware he had been too hurried in
gathering information on New Guinea and, after more work, became
'enthusiastic as hell' about Dutch New Guinea: 'two or three
people only seem to have been right in and very little is known
about them.' He saw the Netherlands Consul General in Sydney
who was optimistic about an entry permit and he considered the
possibility of a base in Dutch territory. However Tom kept hammering
the Dutch territory in his letters and in July 1935 Jock spat
out 'for Christ's sake lay off drumming "D.N.G. - D.N.G.".
I'm not a bloody moron and I'm fully alive to the importance
and potentialities of Dutch territory.' As well as Zoology he
had taken on a course in Tropical Hygiene and First Aid in Tropical
Medicine and Hygiene, and assured Tom the School of Tropical Medicine
would be behind them; also the Australian Museum and the Department
of External Affairs in Canberra.
Meantime Tom was having problems. The film work did not go smoothly.
In spite of a lot of good footage he and "the Operator",
whom Fairbanks had left in charge of the work, quarrelled. They
left the island together but Tom wrote to Jock from London: 'we
had such colossal seas on that bloody little 1000 ton yacht that
it stirred up all my kidneys and fever. I was no good for months
... I spent all the cash Doug gave me and couldn't get to Hollywood,
and when I came home was absolutely broke.' The big money was
not to be. They would now have to rely on funds from the Oxford
Exploration Club and other English sponsors.
Jock enjoyed the year's Zoology, his first taste of University
life. He passed it with a credit and got his diplomas for the
Tropical Medicine courses. He was also imagining the year's work
as a toe in the door to Oxford, though he kept the ambition to
himself. Just as well. Tom was fulminating about the academic
year being a waste of time even for the expedition: 'I'm all
for Marshall B.A. and Univ. boy; but N.G. plans come before that
extra piece of (useless) knowledge ... Universities are bullshit.
I've been at three and a half so I know. The things one teaches
oneself - birds, anthropology - are the things one knows about
and remembers. Compare for example value of a diploma in sexolgy
as against a healthy snazzum experience and a good pair of testicles.'
Jock would have laughed. But here were the two voices from their
backgrounds. Tom, having sampled the best that money could buy
in his own country felt perfectly confident in discarding it;
Jock, having discarded what was offered in the first place, whether
good or bad, had a burning curiosity to know what the best might
give him now. They never came to terms on this as each went further
down his own path.
But Tom's fears that Jock could lose interest in New Guinea were
unfounded. All the work was towards better equipping himself
for it. At this stage the challenge was paramount. He had booked
his passage for January and went on another Embury expedition
to the Barrier Reef in order to earn more money. As well, throughout
the year he had been sending papers for publication to the ornithological
journal, Emu. Two letters to him from Julian Huxley in
relation to field observations show that he was bent upon combining
the field with the laboratory even then. He was also conducting
detailed correspondence with the editor of the Emu, Bryant,
concerning what Jock perceived as pedantic and unwarranted interference
in the editing of his manuscripts. Bryant's replies are bulky
with criticism, but the papers were published.