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Black, John Russell (1908–1988)

by Bill Gammage

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

John Russell Black (1908-1988), patrol officer and explorer, was born on 12 May 1908 in North Adelaide, eldest of five children of New South Wales-born parents Arthur Laughton Black, bank clerk, and his wife Beatrice Agnes, née Porter. He went to two primary schools, Auvergne in North Adelaide and Le Fevre Peninsula State School, and two secondary schools, Pulteney Street (1919-21) and the Collegiate School of St Peter (1922-25). In 1926 he began civil engineering at the University of Adelaide, paying his fees by working as a geology laboratory assistant under Sir Douglas Mawson. He joined the 48th Battalion (later 43rd/48th Battalion), Militia, and by 1932 had passed his captain’s examinations. In 1927 he left university and by 1928 was managing his father’s farm at Mount Compass, near Adelaide. During the Depression he could not make it pay, and in November 1932 applied to be a cadet patrol officer in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. He was the second accepted from 1659 applicants, his report recording that he was well built and strong, teetotal, and a good walker, bushman and horseman.

On 22 June 1933 Black arrived in Salamaua, headquarters of Morobe District. In July he joined Keith McCarthy’s exploring patrol into Kukukuku country. During a fight near Menyamya on 12 September he was wounded in the head by an arrow, and evacuated to hospital at Wau. After eight days he was billed 8s. 6d. for treatment and sent back to the patrol. He worked in Morobe until the prospector Bernard McGrath was killed near Finintegu in the highlands, when he went to help arrest the killers. He took a leading part in a five-hour battle against local people, and after they surrendered remained to enforce peace. In February 1935, following the killing of two missionaries, he was sent to Gorime, in the Central Highlands, to help restore order, but while there was ordered to attend a patrol officers’ course at the University of Sydney. He fought off an ambush on the way out, and by March was in the classroom. In October he returned to work in Morobe until he went on leave in September 1937. He was marked as a leader, with a reputation as a brave, active and effective administrator, and a model report writer--several of his patrol reports were commended in Canberra.

In October 1937 Black was appointed second-in-command of Jim Taylor’s Hagen-Sepik Patrol, to explore the highlands between Mount Hagen and the Netherlands New Guinea (Indonesian) border. The patrol was the largest (271 people), longest (February 1938-July 1939) and best equipped in New Guinea’s history. It walked over 1864 miles (3000 km), pioneered effective methods of supply from the air and reconnaissance, and made sense for the first time of the geography of the Western Highlands. From June 1938 Black held an independent command, during which he explored a large area of difficult country, and found the Porgera goldfield, among the largest in New Guinea. In 1939-40 he drew a large map of the patrol’s route, then had it and Taylor’s report suppressed, lest it give information to the Japanese in the war he knew was coming. After leave he was stationed on the Madang coast. While there, in February 1942 he began war service as a captain in the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit.

When the Japanese invaded in December, Black remained to reconnoitre, lead patrols behind Japanese lines and write policy submissions calling for more enlightened postwar treatment of New Guineans. `The breath of new ideas has been stirring the sleeping body of the controlled native population’, he wrote in February 1944. `It can no longer be ignored or denied.’ Having transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in February 1943, he joined the Land Headquarters School of Civil Affairs, Canberra, in March 1945. That month Black and Zazahame of Ufeto, in the Eastern Highlands, had a daughter. On 21 June 1945 at the chapel of St Peter’s College, Adelaide, he married Dawn Helen Reid Smith (d.1986). He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in October and served as military governor of Labuan, then Brunei, then Sarawak, in Borneo. On 19 March 1946 he was placed on the Reserve of Officers.

In June 1946 Black joined the civil administration of the Territory of Papua-New Guinea in Port Moresby. He found the capital’s Europeans in two factions: an old guard yearning for pre-war days, and a `pro-native’ minority who sought more progressive treatment of local people. Appointed to the Department of District Services and Native Affairs as assistant-director of planning, effectively in charge of policy, he instructed that the administration’s fundamental aim was to lead the Territory towards independence, and welcomed local leaders to his house to discuss the country’s political and economic future. He thought this work the most important of his life: `We stopped them putting the clock back’.

In March 1948 Black joined a syndicate to prospect the Porgera goldfield, and in May resigned from the administration to go into business. He took up importing, running transport and dealing in war surplus in Port Moresby, and made bitumen and plywood in Lae. In 1951 he stood unsuccessfully for the Legislative Council on a `pro-native’ platform, more in defiance than in hope. He left the Territory in March 1953 and, until late in life, farmed near Maitland and at Marion Bay, South Australia, though living increasingly in Adelaide. There he died on 6 April 1988 and was cremated. His two daughters and three sons survived him. Black lost neither his interest in Papua New Guinea, nor his ability to focus on policy, to probe ideas, to think clearly, to act decisively. In peace and war he was outstanding. He was what he aspired to be: `an intellectual in action’.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Gammage, The Sky Travellers (1998) and for bibliography.

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Citation details

Bill Gammage, 'Black, John Russell (1908–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/black-john-russell-12216/text21905, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 15 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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