Our Man in New Guinea

Posted by Daniel on Apr 2, 2010 - 5 comments

Chuck Davis writes:
I’ve just read a book called Gold-Dust & Ashes: The Romantic Story of the New Guinea Goldfields, by a fellow named Ion Idriess. It was published in Australia in 1938, and it’s about looking for gold in New Guinea. (I had guessed, from his first name, that the author was Romanian, but no, it seems he’s Welsh. Google says he wrote more than 50 books!)

Tucked away inside the book—which had the original owner’s name (Fred M. Harden, beautifully handwritten) on the title page—is a loose little paper slip giving Mr. Harden permission to board a ship called the MV Merkur, owned by Burns, Philp & Co. It’s dated December 20, 1939. That little slip has been tucked away inside that book for more than sixty years! The permission was signed by the Burns, Philp ‘manager at Darwin,’ whose name I can’t read. The Burns, Philp company—which offered tourism trips in the area—is mentioned several times in Idriess’ book.


There’s more. At the beginning of Chapter 29 the author makes a passing reference to “Charles A. Banks, of Vancouver,” a well-known financier. I googled him, too, to discover that he had been BC’s Lieutenant Governor from 1946 to 1950, and that during his tenure he had hosted Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the late US president Franklin Roosevelt, who was visiting Vancouver in March of 1949. Her diary is on the Net, and here’s what she says about Banks (his official portrait is above, by Elizabeth Goward) on March 8: “The lieutenant governor of British Columbia, the Hon. Charles A. Banks, and his wife came up from Victoria for the evening and asked us to stop in for a minute at the Vancouver Hotel on the way home, which we gladly did. I was deeply interested to find that before the war they had both lived for a long period of time in the center of New Guinea where they had carried on a most interesting business enterprise. His description of flying machinery in and of walking through the jungle where one could not fly would have interested our soldiers who fought over that area.”


That struggle to get planes into the gold rich fields of New Guinea is one of the major themes of Idriess’ book.

By the way, Banks' wife Jean was also a prospector and an explorer and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


It turns out Banks’ involvement in New Guinea made him immensely rich. Read this. He and his wife didn't much enjoy the pomp and ceremony of the lieutenant governor's job. He did as little in that line as he could get away with and resigned the post a year early.

One of the joys of research is the sinuous trails that lead to unknown regions. I hadn’t known Eleanor Roosevelt had ever been here, and I had to go to New Guinea to find out!