There seemed no hope of life or love for little orphan Grete.
The newborn would be an indirect victim of the blood-soaked struggles – murders and punitive slaughters – between islanders and colonials in the Bismarck Archipelago early last century.
But she was saved by the compassion of my great grandmother Phebe Parkinson, who took her into her home at Kuradui plantation near Kokopo on New Britain and nursed Grete back to health.
Grete would grow up to become “Head Meri” – the senior female staff member – at the home of Phebe and her distinguished husband, the Danish anthropologist Richard Parkinson.
She would have overseen the staff serving the banquet at the grand farewell given at Kuradui for Queen Emma, Phebe’s sister, in 1911 then Australian military officers in Kuradui garden parties after they seized New Guinea from the German administration in 1914.
Now, my family – Parkinson descendants – are searching for descendants of Grete.
This story all started in 1901 on tiny island in what’s now the New Ireland Province. It’s part of a small archipelago group then called St Matthias Islands or Mussau islands.
A well-heeled German traveller anchored his large luxury vessel Eberhard at Mussau in what was supposed to be a scientific exploration called the First German South Seas Expedition. My grandfather Richard Parkinson was no fan and wrote in his famous tome Thirty Years in the South Seas wrote, “it became clear that science lay not so close to the heart of the owner of the ship as pleasure”.
The locals had been in continuous war with foreigners since 1864. Their only other contact with outsiders was when William Dampier ‘discovered’ the island on St Matthias Day, February 24 in 1700.
At first the locals seemed to accept the visitors. Then the Eberhardwas sent back to the mainland to fetch forgotten supplies. The camp was exposed and attacked and the Germans were speared. Herr Mencke and his secretary Herr Caro were fatally wounded while others escaped. Later, some traders of the Hernsheim Company were also killed. These attacks led the Imperial Governor von Benningsen to order a punitive, revenge raid by the German warship Kormorann.
Parkinson wrote: “A not insignificant number of St Matthias people were killed and several women and children as well as a teenage youth were taken to Herbertshöhe (Kokopo) as prisoners.”
Lilian Overell in her book A Woman’s Impression of German New Guineatakes up the story:
Among them was a woman, who, before dying of fever and fright, gave birth to a baby girl.
The Governor sent for Mrs Parkinson and begged her to take the starving little baby. “I am afraid it will die,” she said.
“It only has one chance in life ,” replied the Governor, “and that is in your care.”
So Miti (as Phebe was referred to by locals in their word for Mother) took the wailing mite of humanity home and showed it to her husband.
“It is not going to sleep in our bedroom,” he said, looking at it with aversion.
“Very well,” said Miti cheerfully, “I’ll sleep with it in the rice house.”
Of course he gave way.
Overell wrote: Phebe (Miti) fed the baby by tying rag over the neck of a bottle of milk, and for three months it sleep in her motherly arms. It began to thrive and grew into a strong, healthy child. Grete was very jealous of anyone whom her mistress showed affection.
It is notable that Phebe had 10 children of her own and she had also taken in other ‘war babies’ who were destined for a life of slavery to those who’d killed their parents and seized the children in tribal conflicts.
The photos at the top of this article are both of Grete. The first one as a little girl is from the collection of Nellie Diercke, the eldest Parkinson sibling and older sister to my grandmother Dolly Parkinson. The second image on the right is from Overell’s book and shows Grete as a young woman.
Kuradui is still a sacred place for the Parkinson descended Uechtritz and Diercke families.
In 2004 Phebe’s remains were buried there next to her husband in the family matmat or cemetery. My brother Gordon had found Phebe’s grave on New Ireland 60 years after she died of starvation in a Japanese prison camp during WW2. In one of the great moments of his life, our father Alf Uechtritz oversaw the ceremony where Phebe was reunited with her husband Richard. That’s a whole other story.
Our family is returning to Kokopo and Kuradui in September to place the ashes of our beloved parents Alf and Mary Lou in the Parkinson cemetery. With us will be the Diercke family who will also lay to rest the ashes of my cousin Chris Diercke alongside his brother Michael, father Rudi and grandmother Nellie.
We are privileged that the owners and custodians of Kuradui lands will welcome and host us. It is a very special relationship.
Phebe Parkinson in particular was renowned for her huge heart and love for the islands and their people. She was half American and half Samoan. But when Queen Emma urged her to move to a life of luxury with her in Sydney, Phebe declined: “These are my people,” she said.
So, the story of the Parkinsons is not your typical colonial, pioneer story. It is inextricably linked with the people of New Britain, Kokopo, Rabaul, the communities of what were Ralum, Malapau (Parkinsons first plantation), Karavi, Raluana and Kuradui.
It is also the story of those like little Grete and that is why we are keen to find any of Grete’s descendants and nurture and grow that story.
For those reading this in East New Britain or who’re from the area , please do put the message out for any remaining members of Grete’s family. Unfortunately I do not know her family name. You can direct message me on facebook.