Volume X – The Australians at Rabaul. The Capture and Administration of the German Possessions in the Southern Pacific

Introduction by H Nelson and M Piggott

The Australian War Memorial would like to acknowledge the kind permission of the author and the assistance of the University of Queensland Press in making this Introduction available on–line.

Volume X of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–18 is clearly different from the other volumes of the series. It records only one skirmish between Germans and Australians: on the road to Bitapaka, six Australians, one German and thirty New Guineans died. In a war that raised the amount of violence beyond all previous reckoning, the conflict in New Guinea was distant, brief and minor. But Volume X is concerned with events of consequence. When the Australians took Rabaul in September 1914 they were pushing the border of Australian administered territory north to the equator, and they were accepting responsibility for governing another one million people, a population greater than that then living in the entire western half of the Australian continent. In going to Rabaul the Australians had acted as agents of the British Empire. While they were there, they were on their own: the policies and actions of the Australian garrison in German New Guinea were determined almost exclusively by Australians. In war that is unusual for any Australians operating beyond their own lands. The author of Volume X was charged with chronicling and explaining seven years of military administration of an area larger than the state of Victoria: he was concerned with an episode that was of little importance in battle history but of major importance in the military and general history of Australia.

Born in New Zealand in 1883, Seaforth Simpson Mackenzie attended Victoria University College, Wellington, and graduated in law. Admitted as a barrister in 1907, he left his practice in Wellington after two years and shifted to Melbourne where he edited an illustrated monthly, Southern Sphere. After brief service in the Commonwealth Attorney–General’s department he was appointed in 1915 to discharge the various responsibilities of the senior legal officer with the Australian forces in German New Guinea: he was Deputy Judge–Advocate–General, Judge of the Central Court, and legal adviser to the Administrator. In the absence of the Administrator, he served two terms as Acting–Administrator. One of the few Australians there with a knowledge of German, Mackenzie left Rabaul with the rank of colonel and a reputation as a competent legal officer. His poems published in anthologies and journals gave him standing as a minor literary figure. He returned to the Attorney–General’s department in Melbourne in 1921, and in the following year he became principal registrar of the High Court.

While still in Rabaul in 1919 Mackenzie radioed acceptance of his appointment as historian of Australian activities in German New Guinea. His task was complicated because he had to write about events in which he was an actor, and Mackenzie, who had been in New Guinea for five years, had stayed in a senior and pivotal position for longer than almost anyone else in the garrison. Mackenzie began work as an historian with facile optimism. Six months after his appointment he wrote to Bean that he would be finished by September 1920. In September he explained that he would not be submitting the manuscript until December, but, he wrote, “the material I have collected is so excellent that I venture to hope … that you will deem the additional time taken has been worth while”.1 A pattern had been set: Mackenzie named a deadline he could not meet, gave a brief reason for delay, and set another date which was also absurdly unrealistic.

The correspondence between Mackenzie and Bean illustrates Mackenzie’s inability to be frank about how much he had written and his real difficulties in getting words on the page, and it shows C.E.W. Bean as a hard–driving editor who soon had little sympathy for Mackenzie’s problems in keeping to schedule and none for his dissembling. By April 1922 Bean was curt and insistent: “I cannot, at this stage, agree to the delivery by instalments, that plan having broken down so frequently that it appears that it may be a factor in causing delay.” He demanded all the manuscript by 1 May. He received an instalment of two chapters, and other sections continued to arrive at long intervals. The correspondence which had gone from a formality of address to a reserved informality, returned to formality, and then almost ceased as Bean directed most correspondence through W.A. Newman in the Department of Defence. Finally in 1925 Bean took the often threatened step of laying the facts of the case before the Minister for Defence and asking for his authority to appoint Arthur Jose, the author of the naval volume, to complete the task. Mackenzie countered by stating that he would seek an injunction in the High Court, and Bean eventually settled for a firm promise that he would receive the last chapter on 4 November 1925. It was one deadline that Mackenzie kept, but Bean and Jose found the chapter unsatisfactory. After further acrimonious correspondence and low farce in which Mackenzie made appointments to meet Bean and failed to keep them, Bean received the revised last chapter in October 1926 and some other additions to the text in 1927. The instalments had run over five years. And another year was to pass before Mackenzie was paid his gratuity of 300: the money was withheld until Mackenzie, with his now customary misunderstandings and delays, returned the official files.

The deterioration in the relationship between Bean and Mackenzie had a practical effect on the text. There was much less movement of draft material between Bean and Mackenzie than would otherwise have been the case. In fact after the first years Bean was reluctant to write to Mackenzie at all, and in the end he tried to avoid the protracted battle to retrieve any corrected material from his reluctant author. As a result Bean, T.G. Tucker (Emeritus Professor of Classical Philology at Melbourne University), Jose, and Arthur Bazley of Bean’s staff, did the editing and checking with slight reference to Mackenzie. Chapters found defective suffered what Bean called “wholesale editing”, and Bean and his staff virtually excluded Mackenzie from correcting the proofs as they came from the printer. Had author and general editor been in frequent and easy communication, Bean may have imposed his particular vision on Volume X right from the first draft. Obviously that did not happen and the result is a work that is by Mackenzie, produced with difficulty, and modified by several hands that changed many details, but not the general direction of the volume.

It is commonplace now to note that Bean pioneered an approach to military history that focused primarily on the front line, not G.H.Q. And that he made much of the peculiar qualities he perceived in the Australian soldier: egalitarianism, “country breeding” and mateship. Bean’s six Australian Imperial Force volumes are essentially records of single events involving individual actors joined by a background of larger battles and strategies. Mackenzie’s subject made it difficult for him to follow a similar approach, but in any case his interests and aims were different. Although Bean encouraged him to write about the outer areas, Mackenzie’s essential concern was with Rabaul and the formation of policy at the centre. Mackenzie offered only brief comments on who joined the Expeditionary Force and who served in the garrison. He did not speculate on the extent to which the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force set patterns for the A.I.F. in procedure, behaviour and spirit. The other large groups of foreigners in New Guinea, the Germans and Chinese, also escaped analyses of their origins, religious affiliations, and socio–economic standing.

As he strove to persuade Mackenzie to accept corrections and the Minister to approve the drafts, Bean set down principles which illuminate his own perception of the task of official historian. In October 1926 he wrote to Newman, “in an official Australian history, we are bound to give the Australian case sympathetically and to explain the justification for our country’s action”. But later Bean also said, “with me it is an absolutely basic and fundamental principle that if, as I do, I frequently make adverse comments upon German methods, and sometimes upon French or even British, I must be absolutely frank in dealing with my own country also”. Inevitably there were times when it was difficult to put the Australian case sympathetically and be “absolutely frank”. In one instance in the final chapter Mackenzie criticized the Australian expropriation of German properties in New Guinea. Bean modified Mackenzie’s stance: he took out his conclusion but left some of his arguments in the text. The reader may now see the basis for some contemporary misgivings about the Australian government’s seizure of German properties, and suppose that Mackenzie was opposed to the policy, but there is no marshalling of evidence to show that on balance another course of action was preferable. Bean’s deletion may be justified, but it leaves Mackenzie’s prose with less force and it adds to his problems as an historian who lacks a strong central line of exposition.

A strength of Mackenzie’s work is his examination of the genesis policies. He savoured the play of argument and influence when decisions are made. On the controversy over whether Colonel W. Holmes, the commander of the Expeditionary Force, had been too generous to the enemy at capitulation, Mackenzie gave a careful and lucid account of the legal, military and expedient factors that weighed on Holmes. In his discussions on the origins of the Garrison’s policies on land sales, currency and banking, Mackenzie was again clear and enlightening. But he was reticent about the application of policies. The reader of Volume X will not find out how much land was sold, to whom, where, and for what purpose. Similarly Mackenzie explained why and in what way the labour legislation was changed but without any survey of how many New Guineans worked as indentured labourers, where they came from, where they went to, and the sort of work that they did. Mackenzie has not attempted to provide a basic reference book.

Mackenzie’s account of the Cox incident is an exception: he was equally fulsome about the reasons for the decision and the subsequent action. When the Reverend W. Cox, a Methodist missionary, was flogged by some drunken Germans, Holmes held an inquiry and then directed that the guilty Germans be publicly caned. Mackenzie canvassed all arguments and made specific judgements on the actions of Holmes and the Australian government. When drafts of the book were discussed with the Chief of the General Staff, General H. Chauvel, he advised that any mention of the incident be dropped; but the Minister for Defence, General T.W. Glasgow, followed Bean’s strong advocacy and supported publication. Yet even here there is a minor omission. Mackenzie admitted that in spite of an order banning cameras, a photograph was taken of the caning of the Germans. The photographer, Mackenzie wrote, was a visiting American seaman who sold a copy to the German consul in Sourabaya. Another copy of the photograph, Mackenzie asserted, was picked up by the Australian censors, and despite an extensive search no other prints were found. But what Mackenzie did not say, and perhaps it was unknown to him, was that a photograph of the flogging circulated freely in the form of a postcard with the caption, “Similar Medicine”.

Mackenzie’s poverty of detail on the application of policy is most obvious when he wrote about the administration of the New Guinean peoples. For example, he noted the general instruction that at an outstation a “sentence of death passed on a native was not to be carried out until it had been confirmed by the Administrator after reference of the case to the Judge of the Central Court” (See p. 303). Mackenzie gave no indication as to whether such a sequence of events ever took place. In fact the notices of execution published in the British Administration of German New Guinea Government Gazette from July 1918 until February 1921 gave a total of twenty­five New Guineans hanged by the military administration. From scraps of information elsewhere it is apparent that the death sentence was applied frequently before July 1918, but the exact numbers are difficult to obtain. By comparison with what was happening in the neighbouring territory of Papua the number of hangings under the military administration is extraordinarily high. From his position as senior legal officer Mackenzie must have known about all capital sentences, and about some occasions when summary executions were carried out by field staff in contravention of the rule that all death sentences were to be referred to Rabaul. As an historian he certainly had a file which showed that Brigadier­ General S. Pethebridge had instructed a field officer “to carry out a death sentence on the spot with the idea of impressing the local natives”. Mackenzie was also guarded in his selection of incidents in which patrol officers and police fired on villagers. His description of the clashes involving the Ogilvie brothers (See pp. 308–12) gave no hint that on other patrols shooting was frequent and deaths numerous. Again Mackenzie was familiar with the material: the punitive patrols were reported on files Mackenzie consulted for other reasons.

One of the constraints on Mackenzie was nationalist. The Australians had taken German New Guinea by force, but they did not want to retain it as a prize of war. They asserted other and superior claims. First, they wanted it understood that northeast New Guinea was more properly a British possession cunningly seized by the Germans in 1884. Hence Mackenzie’s long backward glance at exploration in chapter 1 (with its emphasis on the British navigators), and at the sequence of events at the time of annexation. Secondly, the Australians claimed a moral justification: they were, they believed, more humane administrators than the Germans. Mackenzie carefully listed, the amendments to the labour laws and he pointed out that the military administrators were more likely to enforce the protective clauses in the legislation than the Germans. Although the garrison was obliged under the terms of the capitulation to retain most German laws, the Australians in German New Guinea did not, Mackenzie argued, depart “from the traditional principles of British colonial administration of a subject race” (See p. 363).

A more immediate restraint on Mackenzie arose from the fact that at the time he was writing there had been attacks on the military administration’s record as protector of the interests of New Guineans. In particular, guarded but influential criticism had been made by Hubert Murray, the Lieutenant–Governor of Papua, in his minority report as chairman of the 1919 Royal Commission on Late German New Guinea. There was no doubting the direction of Murray’s comments, and in his private writings he was explicit: “the same old floggings seem to go on, with the same old imprisonment in dark rooms without trial, and all the paraphernalia of the old German regime”.2 Before Mackenzie’s volume was published the Australian government had been forced to conduct a public enquiry into violations of the labour laws. Such revelations were embarrassing to Australia in the League of Nations and undermined her assumption of a moral right to rule. Bean conceded that in Volume X he was dealing with events of current international significance: he “reduced” Mackenzie’s draft and asked that the Minister read the final chapters “as anything affecting our mandate has a possible political bearing, and may be noted in Germany”. Nine years after the armistice Mackenzie was still subject to some of the constraints of a writer in wartime: his material could be exploited by enemies and damage Australia’s standing. Neither Bean nor Mackenzie were prepared to carry their desire to be frank that far.

Through most of Volume X New Guineans are incidental. They take the same role in the text that they do in the photographs where they direct attention to an exotic background: they stand at the edge of the staff at Government House, they are “Natives under arrest on a charge of cannibalism”, they are policemen, and they are bystanders in villages and on roads and wharves. Only Two New Guineans are named in the volume, Lapapiri, who resisted arrest and was not again mentioned, and Bowu who was shot, and his head cut off and displayed. Mackenzie's generalizations about New Guineans show that he was better informed about them than almost all his contemporaries, but in hindsight his observations are simplistic and he often took a characteristic which may have been true of one area and applied it though out the territory. By the time Volume X was completed the work of the pioneering field anthropologists, who could had added depth to Mackenzie's comments, was just becoming available. Both Bronislaw Malinowski and Richard Thurwald had had their research disrupted by war, but Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific was published in 1922.

Mackenzie solved the problem of being both historian and participant by almost excluding the participant. He have just one and a half sentences to his six months as Acting-Administrator in 1917-18, a time of “on radical changes” (See pp. 342-3). In Chapter XVI he wrote on “The Administration of Justice” with a brief mention to the “writer” taking up office and almost nothing of the particular role that he played during his long responsibility for administration of the law. He was self-effacing to the point where he left gaps in the record, but that was his decision. He wrote to Bean regretting that he was “compelled” to refer to him self, and stating, “I wish to be kept out of the picture as much as possible.” Bean was equally reluctant to refer to himself, but then he was normally and observer, not the holder of high office.

Volume X was the last of the books arising directly from Australian experience of the war in New Guinea. With one exception, J.S. Lyng, Our New Possession, (Melbourne: Melbourne Publishing Company, 1919), Mackenzie ignored those who had previously covered some of the same ground. In fact three works commemorating Australians first land action of the war had been published quickly: Signaller L.C. Reeves booklet, Australians in Action in New Guinea, (Sydney: Australasian News Company Ltd, 1915): and F.S. Burnell's two books, Australia Versus Germany (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1915), and How Australia took German and New Guinea: An Illustrated Record, (Sydney: W.C. Penfold & Co. Ltd, 1915). Burnell had been the Sydney Morning Herald Correspondent with the Expeditionary Force, and his volume, Australia Versus Germany, Which might easily have been subsumed by the greater events beginning in April 1915, was reprinted in 1919. In the same year Lying and another participant, A.H. Worthington, (Our Island Captures, Adelaide: G. Hassess & Son, 1919) published their accounts. Lyng, who had been interpreter, government printer and district officer, wrote a second volume which is partly fiction: Island Films, (Sydney: Cornstalk Publishing Company, 1925). In his introduction to Lyng's second book Mackenzie posed basic questions about “the administration of native affairs” in a more explicit form than he chose, or was advised, to use in Volume X. In was not until C.D. Rowley completed The Australians in German New Guinea 1914-1921, (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1958), that much of Mackenzie's work was reassessed. Drawing on almost the same documents as Mackenzie, Rowley wrote an entirely different sort of book. With its detail and tough analysis of how the military administration governed New Guineans, Rowley's book is an essential companion to the Official History. Only recently have scholars produced monographs on German New Guinea to extent and revise the preliminary description and judgements made by Mackenzie. Peter Sack and Dymphna Clark have translated several basic volumes: Albert Hahl, Governor in New Guinea, (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1980): Eduard Hernsheim, South Sea Merchant, (Port Moresby: Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, 1983): German New Guinea, The Annual Reports, (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1979): And German New Guinea, The Draft Annual Report for 1913-14, (Canberra: Department of Law, Research of Social Sciences, Australian National University, 1980). Peter Sack has also published the study, Land Between Two Laws, Early European Land Acquisitions in New Guinea, (Canberra Australian National University Press, 1973). Stewart Firth has written the only general history, New Guinea under the Germans, (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1982); and Peter Hempenstall his made comparisons with other German Pacific colonies in his Pacific Islanders under German Rule, A Study in the Meaning of Colonial Resistance, (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1978).

Mackenzie’s volume still stands as the most comprehensive record of the action in New Guinea, of Australians sometimes hesitant and sometimes brash finding their way through a tangle of international, national and local law to take over government, and of the policies of the administration in Rabaul. It is also a document revealing much about the attitudes of Australians in their meetings with other peoples and cultures.

There is a final irony to Volume X. Mackenzie, who had wanted to publish his opposition to expropriation and been curbed by Bean, tried to benefit from the policy. When the ex–German properties were put up for sale Mackenzie successfully tendered £28,000 for three plantations. To secure the properties he went deeply into debt and violated the spirit, and probably the law, of the conditions of sale. Shortly after the contracts had been completed, copra prices collapsed and the New Guinea properties consumed money rather than made it. Mackenzie, unable to meet his commitments, was in desperate financial difficulties. In 1936 he was found guilty of forging and uttering seals of the High Court and sentenced to four years imprisonment. Mackenzie had reached the heights of his career in New Guinea, and it was his ambition to again benefit from New Guinea that contributed to his public destruction. Mackenzie died in Melbourne in 1955.

H. Nelson
Department of Pacific and Southeast Asian History,
Australian National University

M. Piggott
Australian War Memorial.

July 1984


  1. The correspondence between Bean and Mackenzie and other letters relating to Volume X are held in two files, AWM 38, 3DRL 7953 items 13 and 14, in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
  2. Hubert to Gilbert Murray, 3 October 1918, in F. West, ed., Selected Letters of Hubert Murray, (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 103.