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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sumsuma (1903–1965)

by Bill Gammage

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Sumsuma (1903?-1965), boat captain and New Guinea patriot, was born about 1903 at Sasa village on Boang Island, New Ireland, son of Tamapuat, of Ansingsing village on Tefa island, and Tarapat of Sasa. His parents were not influential and his prospects therefore few, but at age 10 he entered the foreigner's world: his mother beat him and he ran away to sea. By 1927 he was captain of the Melanesian Co.'s motor schooner, Edith, a coastal trader out of Rabaul, and was probably the highest-paid New Guinean in the Mandated Territory, earning, with bonuses, up to £12 a month when most New Guineans working for cash received five shillings.

During December 1928 Sumsuma organized a strike by almost all Rabaul's 3000 New Guinean workers to win them £12 a month. He united in common purpose men from around coastal New Guinea, many recently hostile to one another; he kept their plans secret from every European; and he gained the vital co-operation of another remarkable leader, N'Dramei of Pitylu island off Manus, the senior sergeant-major of police. Led by the police and the 'boss boys' (foremen), workers began quitting Rabaul after dusk on 2 January 1929 and by late that night had gathered at the Catholic or Methodist missions on the Kokopo road. Sumsuma had expected the missionaries to mediate, but they would not, and Rabaul's employers would not negotiate. Although some strikers held firm for two or three days, and a few never went back to work, by mid-morning on 3 January the strike had collapsed.

Nonetheless, most of Rabaul's Europeans, especially the planters and business people, reacted with fear and fury. The government dismissed 190 police, sentencing most to six months hard labour as carriers. Sumsuma, N'Dramei and nineteen others were imprisoned for three years: Sumsuma served his sentence at Aitape and Kavieng, where warders beat him so severely that he bore the scars for the rest of his life and never forgot the cruelties he suffered.

On being released, he went home to Boang and for the next thirty years searched for the road of progress. Both before and after World War II he organized copra marketing co-operatives, but they failed or were suppressed. When the Japanese came he collaborated, learning from them as he had from Europeans. When they left, his people were ready to elect him king, but the Australians returned and put him in prison again, for cargo cult activities. He toiled on, resourceful, innovative, determined to lead. With the local Catholic mission he established a bank, a power-house, a school and other projects. He was still looking ahead when he died of asthma on 20 August 1965 in the Boang mission hospital. From obscurity he had become a leader of his people, and one of the first—Black or White—to consider seriously the place of New Guineans in a rapidly changing world. His death stilled a great vision, a restless spirit, a friend of the people, and a true man.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Denoon and R. Lacey (eds), Oral Tradition in Melanesia (Port Moresby, 1981)
  • Journal of Pacific History, 10, pt 3, 1975, p 3.

Citation details

Bill Gammage, 'Sumsuma (1903–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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