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PAPUA NEW GUINEA
HISTORICAL IMPRESSIONS

On April 9th, 1872, Luigi D'Albertis wrote in his diary "At last we are in New Guinea". The island had been known to the Portuguese in 1562 and several expeditions had visited its coast. D'Albertis however was the first European to penetrate any distance into its daunting interior.

           

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Reaching the northwestern tip of New Guinea in April 1872, D'Albertis marched inland for about 20 miles. But ill health forced him to return to Australia and it was not until 1875 that he returned. This time he headed for Yule Island, in the Gulf of Papua, making it his base during the next three years for frequent excursions into the interior.

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Like most 19th century explorers, D'Albertis took along an assortment of trinkets to win local favour. Other items from his stock in trade were more original. On one occasion, he charmed the tribesmen with kisses; on another, he impressed them by kissing the head of a live snake.

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Sailing in the Neva, a nine tone steam launch, provided by the New South Wales Government, D'Albertis became the first explorer to travel the full navigable length of the Fly River, some 580 miles. He named its tributaries, the Alice, after the wife of the New South Wales Premier, and the Victor Emmanuel Mountains, in honour of the King of Italy. But the people of the Fly River region were hostile, and in one fierce encounter the Neva was struck by 45 arrows.   

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Throughout his journeys, D'Albertis reported images of all the animals he encountered including the harpyopsis, the pentailed phalanger and the grey dorcopsis. On Yule Island, D'Albertis recorded that the natives were not only quiet, but assisted him in bringing in a good number of birds killed with arrows. They also supplied him with a few mammiferous animals and frogs. He also recorded how long nets were used to capture the grey dorcopsis by surrounding its haunts with the nets and when it became entangled in the nets, they killed it with clubs. 

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A Papuan village as seen by D'Albertis in 1875

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Darnley Island mummy

D'Albertis was very pleased at being able to land on Darnley Island. The island presented an enchanting view from the sea, with its summits clad in bright green and with its valleys where the lovely palm coconut and bamboo flourished. The natives were not nude, but slightly clothed with leaves and grass. They appeared to venerate their dead, and preserve them by embalming and desiccation. He saw the corpse thus preserved of the husband of one of the women, he having been dead for over a year. He still occupied the nuptial chamber, standing in the middle of the house attached to a kind of upright ladder.

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Equally remarkable were fourteen skulls found in a village near the Fly River. They were covered by a sort of half mask representing a face, which appeared to be made of resinous wax, and was adorned by seeds and shells. The nostrils and eyes were made of shells. To judge them from their whole aspect, these skulls would have been used as instruments of music.

D'Albertis also observed the embalmed head of a man, with nothing remaining on it but the skin, from which the skull had been removed by means of a long cut at the back. The skin had afterwards been stuffed in such a way as to retain the natural appearance of a head. He considered it to be something of a horrible sight. 

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The Neva is attacked by locals on the Fly River.

In 1878, D'Albertis returned to Italy where his unique collection of specimens won him wide acclaim. The diary recording his adventures and scientific observations was published in Italian and English. The diary sold well but D'Albertis rejected acclaim, preferring the solitude of the Pontine Marshes. Here he built a replica of a Papuan house as a reminder of New Guinea, the "land of enchantment". 

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 7th October 2008)