Phebe Parkinson and the little orphan girl Grete

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.

Great grandmother Phebe Parkinson at Kuradui homestead in the 1920s

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.

Extract from Air Niugini’s Paradise magazine

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.

Extract from Richard Parkinson’s Thirty Years in the South Seas

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 Parkinson family at Kuradui

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.

Reburial ceremony for Phebe Parkinson 2004

Our Wedding Day

April 26 (1952) was my big day! I was quite excited and very nervous when I woke up at the Cosmo hotel. My boi had ironed my shirt and pressed my sharkskin suit. After I had dressed, I ordered a taxi to come and get me to go to church.

Our friends were already gathering around the church plus some sticky beaks.

The only members of my family were Rudi and Gwen Diercke and their children. Mary Lou had only her mother. Though Father White was to say mass and marry us, I was met by Father Bernard Frankie.

He told me what we needed to do, where to kneel, etc. He was really beaming and kept telling me what a lucky guy I was to get Mary Lou Harris!

Father Bernard Franke

Bob (Sutherland) arrived with his mother and we were ushered into the church and told where to stand. I made sure that Bob had the ring! Soon Mary Lou arrived. She was given away by our friend, Arthur Savage. They came up the aisle and Mary Lou knelt beside me. She looked very beautiful. I just couldn’t believe that she was about to marry me!

Father White came into say Mass as attended by Father Franke.

So, OUR MASS started, and the time came for us to say all the things required to say to become man and wife.

I could see that Lou was also a little nervous. To be quite honest, I don’t think that I was able to follow the Mass as I should have, except when it came to receive the Sacrament. Then I really thanked God for giving me Mary Lou.

When Mass finished, we went to the Sacristy to sign the books. Then I had my wife on my arm and we walked down the aisle to the front of the church. There, the Girl Guides formed a Guard of Honour.

Guard of Honour by May Lou’s girl guides

The bridesmaids were Wynne Ann Legge and Pat Ives. The flower girls were Alannah Parker and Sharon Whalley, and the page boys Christopher Diercke and Anthony Parker.

The main wedding group posed photos were taken at the door of the church.

At left wearing hat is our Nana Ursula Harris … mother of Mary Lou

We then walked across the yard to the Xavier Hall. Soon all the speeches were being made, and I had to make my speech, and was very nervous as I had never made a speech before. I felt a bit tongue tied but it wasn’t too bad. We had a wonderful reception. It was great to have all our friends around us.

Father White and Ursula Harris in a champagne mood

Jack Thurston was very special as he had been a great friend of my father.

As mentioned earlier, he had made his boat Karlamanus available to take us to Sum Sum.

He was going to skipper it down himself, although he had his own captain.

When it was time to leave for the ship, we got into one of the new Chev cars to take us to the wharf via Lou’s home, where she had to change. Friends had tied tin etc. on the back of the car, so we made a big rattle leaving the reception whole.

Mary Lou changed for the boat trip to Sum Sum .. with Wynn Ann Legge

Incidentally, that hall had been beautifully decorated by John Carroll and his Boy Scouts.

The Karlamanus was tied up at ‘wreck wharf’. Most guests also came down to see us off. After lots of farewells and “Good Lucks’ we left for our trip to Sum Sum.

We must have left about midday or soon after as it took five and half hours at least to get to Sum Sum.

The Karlamanus was a fast boat so we got to Sum Sum just before dark.

All the plantation workers and their waveband children were at the beach to welcome the new Missus. Our baggage and cargo was unloaded and we went ashore.

All the plantation workers and their waveband children were at the beach to welcome the new Missus. Our baggage and cargo was unloaded and we went ashore.

As we went into the new house I observed the tradition of carrying a new bride across the threshold. Our new home was just about finished. 

I think one spare bedroom still had to be lined. We asked Jack to stay for a bite, but he wanted to get going. So we had a bottle of champagne and saw him off! We lit our kero lamps and had a bite to eat from the leftovers of the reception. 

Most couples went off on their honeymoon to somewhere other than they home. We didn’t. We had a wonderful honeymoon on the plantation itself, exploring and swimming up the Sum Sum river. Swimming along the passages in the reef. Collecting shells and food on the reef. Fishing. Driving in the jeep.

That was the start of our life together.

I wonder if on that day we knew what was ahead of us in years to come, how we would have felt!?

I am writing this 45 years later and have 10 children and 25 grandchildren.(*note in 2019 now 32 grandchildren , 23 great grandchildren with three more on the way)

There have been trials and problems and unforeseen situations, as the rest of this story will confirm. But all in all, we have been greatly blessed and have had so much to be thankful for.