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The Reckoning

The first Europeans in Papua New Guinea settled on the coastline, and thought that the mountainous interior was uninhabitable, until the 1930s, when Michael, James, and Daniel Leahy went there to mine gold. They found hundreds of tribes living there, people who had never seen white men, or guns, or metal tools.

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 Leahy brothers settled in and put the natives to work mining gold and building an airstrip to open up the highlands to outsiders. Fifty years later, Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson went to Papua New Guinea to make a historical documentary and used actual film that Mick Leahy had shot back in the 1930s, plus interviews with natives who were there and remembered what happened. That documentary, First Contact, became a classic. Connolly and Anderson went back and made two more documentaries about Mick Leahy's son Joe. Joe bought land from Guniga leaders to start coffee plantations -twice. The tribesmen never considered land something that could be bought or sold, but agreed to the deal because Joe promised that the Guniga people who worked the plantation would become rich. While that never happened, Connolly and Anderson kept filming until tribal warfare ran them off for good. Or until now. Connolly returned to Papua New Guinea to visit his friends, including Joe Leahy, 25 years later, to see what has changed in that time. Read about that trip, and all that led up to it, at Smithsonian magazine.  

(Image credit: Bob Connolly)

You can see a segment of First Contact at YouTube.

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