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Abel, Sir Cecil Charles (1903–1994)

by David Wetherell

This article was published online in 2018

Sir Cecil Charles Geoffrey Abel (1903-1994), missionary and politician, was born on 1 February 1903 at Kwato mission, Milne Bay, British New Guinea (Papua), eldest of four children of English-born parents Charles William Abel, missionary, and his wife Elizabeth Beatrice Emma, née Moxon. His father, a Congregational minister and agent of the London Missionary Society (LMS), had arrived in British New Guinea in 1890. Educated first at Kwato, Cecil boarded between 1918 and 1921 at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore). From 1921 he attended the University of Cambridge (BA, 1925), where he lived at Cheshunt College and, with his brother Russell, studied anthropology under A. C. Haddon, who had researched and published anthropological works on the Torres Strait. Described as his father’s ‘twin’ in appearance and to a large extent in character, Cecil was expected to succeed his father as head of the mission at Kwato. Both were Independents in the Congregational sense of not depending upon central authority and in the broader sense of resisting obligation to others.

In 1917 the Kwato mission had seceded from the LMS, which rejected Charles Abel’s policies of encouraging self-sufficiency through the development of plantation enterprises. He was unusual among missionaries in Papua in personally owning and leasing lands for secular, non-religious purposes. The mission operated on the principle that Papua’s future lay in creating an English-speaking environment offering a complete break with traditional culture, for which Charles had little respect. Village influences would be minimised and, on Kwato and at Milne Bay, groups of Christian Papuans (called gana-aro, or ‘those inside the fence’) would perpetuate themselves through intermarriage. Numbers rose to about four hundred between World Wars I and II. In most parts of the territory there was a high degree of racial segregation but, in sharp contrast, sporting and religious camaraderie prevailed at the mission.

Abel succeeded as head of mission after the death of his father in 1930. He continued the plantation enterprises, but his leadership differed from his father’s owing to a significant change in religious direction, which further undermined racial aloofness. While at Cambridge he had been influenced by the American Lutheran Frank Buchman, founder of the Oxford Group (later Moral Re-Armament). He led a party of Kwato adherents in 1934 to preach racial brotherhood and the public confession of sin to the Kunika (or Keveri) people 125 miles (200 km) along the south Papuan coast. Here, with government endorsement, they brought about major social reforms, including the end of customs of homicide. The anthropologist F. E. Williams wrote that the Kunika Papuans valued Abel’s friendship and declared that he feared nothing. Knowing that civil authorities now proscribed the slaughter of enemies, they accepted that a new order, inspired by Kwato—confession, schooling, rice growing, football, and friendliness to all—had prevailed over the old.

Following Japan’s entry into World War II in December 1941, many Europeans in Papua were evacuated to Australia. Abel and his colleague, Geoffrey Baskett, were allowed by army authorities to remain at Kwato. They provided equipment and labour to assist army engineers developing Milne Bay as a base. When the Japanese landed at Abel's Milne Bay plantation, Koeabule, in August, superior Allied forces, mostly Australian, defeated them decisively. Abel’s ethnographic, linguistic, and geographical knowledge proved useful as the Papuan campaign progressed. Papuan labour gangs under his direction built a military aerodrome behind the Musa River in the Owen Stanley Range which became operational in October and was named Abel’s Field.

After the war the mission declined, due partly to Abel’s own conduct. Most of the Papuan community were scattered by the war, and few of the European staff returned. On 14 August 1951 at Waga Waga village, Milne Bay, Abel married Semi (Andrew) Bwagagaia, a granddaughter of the clan elder who had been Kwato’s traditional owner. The marriage, which followed allegations of liaisons between Abel and Papuan mission women during and after the war, was denounced by influential Papuans in the mission community. Furthermore, reduced support from overseas donors, compounded by financial irregularities during Abel’s period as treasurer, threatened the subsistence of the Kwato Extension Association, the body that had managed the mission’s land assets since 1917.

Abel resigned from the mission and he and his wife lived at nearby Gamaudodo village, from where he worked on a plantation and with the Copra Marketing Board of Papua and New Guinea, before moving to Hohola, Port Moresby. In 1964 he joined the staff of the newly founded Administrative College and taught political science. With a number of Papuan and New Guinean students, including (Sir) Michael Somare, (Sir) Albert Maori Kiki, and Joseph Nombri, he became involved in an informal group of ‘thirteen angry men’ (Epstein, Parker, and Reay 1971, 119) known as the ‘Bully Beef Club.’ In 1967 the group evolved into the Pangu Pati (Papua and New Guinea Union Party), which adopted a platform demanding self-government within two years. Representing the party, Abel was elected to the House of Assembly as member for Milne Bay (Regional) in 1968. Later that year he was responsible for drafting the party’s economic policy.

Pangu’s campaign for self-government reflected international pressure for change that had been building for fifteen years at the United Nations. The Australian government under Sir Robert Menzies and his successors Harold Holt and (Sir) John Gorton acknowledged that it was better to grant self-government sooner than later, thus keeping ahead of nationalist demands. Following the 1972 elections, under a revised constitution, Pangu formed an administration with Somare as chief minister. Abel had not contested the election but remained as an advisor to Somare, who became prime minister following independence in 1975. Abel is credited with writing the preamble to the Papua New Guinea constitution. Appointed OBE in 1972, he was knighted in 1982.

Describing Abel as a ‘living institution,’ and a ‘scholar, soldier and statesman,’ Somare praised his ‘high principles and impregnable Christian virtues’ (Post Courier 1994, 12). He loved cricket, and even in his old age was ‘cheerful and canny enough to juggle a last lithe slips catch’ (Griffin 1994, 13). Predeceased by his wife (d. 1989), he died on 25 June 1994 in Wesley Private Hospital, Auchenflower, Brisbane, and was buried at Kwato Island. Two daughters and a son, all adopted, survived him.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Epstein, A. L., R. S. Parker, and Marie Reay, eds. The Politics of Dependence: Papua New Guinea 1968. Canberra: ANU Press, 1971
  • Griffin, James. ‘Missionary Held Sway in PNG.’ Australian, 4 July 1994, 13
  • Griffin, James, Hank Nelson, and Stewart Firth. Papua New Guinea, a Political History. Richmond, Vic.: Heinemann Educational Australia, 1979
  • Post Courier (Port Moresby). ‘Sir Cecil Abel.’ 4 July 1994, 12
  • Wetherell, David. Charles Abel and the Kwato Mission of Papua New Guinea 1891-1975. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1996
  • Wetherell, David, and Charlotte Carr-Gregg. ‘Moral Re-Armament in Papua, 1931–1942.’ Oceania 54, no.3 (March 1984): 177–203
  • Williams, F. E. ‘Mission Influence among the Keveri of South-East Papua.’ Oceania 15, no. 2 (December 1944): 89–141

Additional Resources

Citation details

David Wetherell, 'Abel, Sir Cecil Charles (1903–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/abel-sir-cecil-charles-27044/text34520, published online 2018, accessed online 18 January 2019.

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