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Mouton, Jean Baptiste Octave (1866–1946)

by P. Biskup

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Jean Baptiste Octave Mouton (1866-1946), New Guinea trader and plantation owner, was born on 9 October 1866 at Velaine, Belgium, son of Maximilien Mouton, impoverished commercial traveller, and his wife Rose, née Josse. He left school at 11, became an apprentice barber and in 1881 migrated with his father to the ill-fated Free Colony of Port-Breton. The venture—brainchild of a half-demented French aristocrat, the Marquis de Rays—ended in utter failure. About one-half of the 700 colonists perished and only about a dozen, the Moutons among them, remained in New Guinea.

In 1882 the Moutons settled on the Gazelle Peninsula as copra traders under contract to Thomas Farrell, the common law husband of E. E. Forsayth, known as Queen Emma. Next year they moved to Kinigunan (Vunanami), east of Kokopo, signed a contract with one of Farrell's competitors, Eduard Hernsheim, and were still working for him when Mouton senior died in 1888. Octave soon started to trade for the Deutsche Handels- und Plantagen-gesellschaft der Südsee-Inseln zu Hamburg and in 1891 planted his first coconut trees on land acquired by his father at Kinigunan. With the financial backing of the Sacred Heart Mission, Mouton became in 1894 the first independent trader in New Guinea, and by getting his trade goods directly from Sydney and selling his copra to Burns, Philp & Co. Ltd, gradually managed to break the virtual foreign trade monopoly of the big companies. In 1897, together with Captain Rondahl, a Swede, and Captain Monrad, a Dane previously employed by Queen Emma, he founded the trading firm, Mouton & Co., and gradually expanded his trading activities to northern New Ireland, Kapingamarangi and Ontong Java while continuing to plant coconuts. He was the envy of all struggling traders and planters, but one observer attributed his prosperity to his 'industry' and 'clear-headedness'.

In 1902 Mouton made the first of several business and pleasure trips to Australia. On his next visit he met a Sydney girl, Monantha Davis, and married her on 1 September 1903; they had one son. He bought a property near Port Hacking but was forced to spend much of his time in New Guinea, since he could not rely on his managers. In 1911 Mouton became a naturalized Australian. The same year he divorced his wife and married on 8 June 1914 Helen Collier (d.1930); they had one son. After the war he divided his time between Sydney and Kinigunan. In 1929 he sold his plantation to the Sacred Heart Mission, and retired to Bellevue Hill, Sydney, marrying a widow, Jessie Jamieson Vallerie, née Barnsley, on 27 September 1930. But he retained a connexion with New Guinea: in 1930 he bought the Rabaul Times, and later formed Rabaul Recreations Ltd which ran Rabaul's only cinema. He died of cirrhosis of the liver at Bellevue Hill on 7 September 1946 and was buried in South Head cemetery with Anglican rites.

Mouton's Memoirs, written in the early 1930s, are an important record of colonial New Guinea, for unlike the pioneer missionaries and government officials, the early traders left few documents for posterity. They are written in a somewhat clumsy style since Mouton, while a fluent speaker of pidgin, never quite mastered the intricacies of the English language. He emerges as down-to-earth and pragmatic, with an appreciation of 'kanaka ways'. Moderately wealthy, he lived with some style and travelled widely, spending almost two years in Europe in 1908-09 and 1919-20. In New Guinea, his household included a much commented on rarity, a governess from Sydney; in Sydney his second wife had Tolai servants. He sold his plantation at a most opportune time, only a few months before the crash in 1929. His estate was valued for probate at £143,571.

Select Bibliography

  • J. B. O. Mouton, The New Guinea Memoirs of Jean Baptiste Octave Mouton, P. Biskup (ed), (Canb, 1974)
  • H. Blum, Neu-Guinea und der Bismarckarchipel (Berlin, 1900)
  • J. H. Niau, The Phantom Paradise (Syd, 1936).

Citation details

P. Biskup, 'Mouton, Jean Baptiste Octave (1866–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mouton-jean-baptiste-octave-7672/text13423, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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