Tommy Kabu

Tommy Kabu (c.1922-1969), was a Papuan leader, born Koive Aua into the I’ai tribe in the Gulf District. The name Tommy was given to him by Australians, and Kabu (meaning “the man who owns things”) was given to him later by his own people. In 1937, after a short time at the London Missionary Society school in Urika, he joined the police in Samarai. In 1942, when the Japanese invaded, he was evacuated to Queensland, Australia, where he was employed by a naval officer as an orderly. In 1943-44 he was an able seaman on HMAS Bundaberg. Among the Australians with whom he lived he had the reputation of an honest, clean-living, devout Christian. On his return to PNG in 1945 Kabu established a cooperative movement to improve the standard of living of his people. He collected £4,000, bought a schooner, and formed the Purari Trading Company to trade sago to Port Moresby. He encouraged his people to give up traditional beliefs, become Christians, and adopt European ways. He abandoned his language and spoke Hiri Motu.

In Port Moresby he acquired land, formed the Tommy Kabu Camp Society and established several small businesses including the production of wall matting hand-woven from sago palm fronds. Through his personality and hard work Kabu gained influence and prestige. Some called him “King Tommy”. Kabu believed that the Papuans should determine their own political future. In Purari he suspended Australian law, formed a police force, set up village courts and built a jail. Some Administration officials approved of his activities but some felt threatened and attempted to sabotage the movement. Very few were actively cooperative. The businesses failed to prosper because they could not overcome transport problems and the people did not have the necessary bookkeeping and management skills.

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