Award-winning academic dissected PNG's history

Award-winning academic dissected PNG's history

HANK NELSON Born October 21, 1937; died February 17, 2012

Professor Hank Nelson of the Australian National University died in Canberra on Friday, February 17, after a long battle with cancer. His was a life focused on both Papua New Guinea and Australia, and it was the relationship between the two that nourished his intellect.

Born in 1937 in Boort, country Victoria, Hank ''Neil'' Hyland Nelson spent the late 1960s and early 1970s teaching at the University of Papua New Guinea. His books, including Black, White and Gold: Goldmining in Papua New Guinea, 1878-1930 and Taim Bilong Masta: the Australian Involvement with Papua New Guinea, established for him a reputation as the foremost historian of Papua New Guinea.

His work on the Japanese occupation of PNG, and Australian involvement in the Pacific War, entailed ventures into oral history involving collaborations with journalists, as with the 1982 documentary series Angels at War, which won awards both from the Australian Film Institute and at the Nyon Film Festival in Switzerland. That work led to his involvement in the preparation of displays and sound archives of the Australian War Memorial.

Nelson wanted history to serve a broader purpose, and he wrote not just for his colleagues or his profession but for a wider public. His three books published by the ABC exemplified this approach, above all Taim Bilong Masta: The Australian Involvement with Papua New Guinea, ABC, 1982, which told the story in large part through people's reminiscences.

Nelson once joked Australians were such a rarity in the ranks of historians at the Australian National University his position had to be due to affirmative action. That was typical humility. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was a splendid historian, equally at home with the detail of Papua New Guinea's history and with theories of political power or the dynamics of group identity.


He was proud of his rural origins, his national service and his school teaching, and he drew upon them perceptively in books such as Prisoners of War: Australians Under Nippon and With Its Hat About Its Ears: Recollections of the Bush School. His background was the foundation of his research, and it helps to explain his concern for the place of the common people in history.

He was a firm empiricist, but one who happily engaged with global themes, such as Francis Fukuyama's perspectives on state-building or Paul Collier's analysis of the causes of poverty among the ''bottom billion''. As chairman of the ANU's State, Society & Governance in Melanesia Program, he was always on the lookout for seemingly small incidents that gave a window through which to look at wider trends, and that would reveal something about how political power worked in Melanesia; letters to the newspapers, for example, which he used as a way of understanding the frustrations and hopes of ordinary Papua New Guineans in a country where government has delivered much less than promised at independence.

He had no time for second-grade work but was the first to praise first-rate work, generous to colleagues in a profession where generosity is often missing. For that reason he served as a solid mentor for younger scholars at ANU, and an inspiration to fellow senior colleagues.

Yet there were also other good reasons, including a lively strain of common decency and human kindness, which made Nelson a much-liked colleague and friend.

He kept writing until close to the end, with a series of articles for Inside Story about the crises of the Somare government in PNG, a paper on ''comfort women'' in wartime Rabaul, and another on the perils of labelling states as having failed in the Pacific.

He was a firm advocate of straight talking and solid prose, with no fluff around the edges.

He was possessed with a great sense of the urgency of scholarly research in Melanesia, and of how much still needed to be done.

It is a tribute to Nelson he contributed so much of what has been done. He is survived by his wife, Jan, and his children Tanya, Michael and Lauren.

Jon Fraenkel, Stewart Firth and Bryant Allen of the State, Society & Governance in Melanesia program, Australian National University.

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