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Taylor, James Lindsay (1901–1987)

by Bill Gammage

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

James Lindsay Taylor (1901-1987), patrol officer and explorer, was born on 25 January 1901 at Alexandria, Sydney, second surviving child of English-born parents George Henry Taylor, accountant, and his wife Harriette, née Carter. Jim went to Bondi Public School then Sydney Technical High School. On 22 March 1917 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He joined the 34th Battalion in France on 21 March 1918, but was wounded by a shell splinter later that month. After recuperating, Taylor returned to the front on 11 May and was gassed near Ville on 27 May. A month later he rejoined his unit and remained at the front until the 34th battalion was withdrawn. Taylor was sent to AIF Headquarters in London on 14 October and in March 1919 was granted leave to study for matriculation at King’s College, University of London. He passed in October, left for Australia in November, and was discharged on 23 January 1920.

That year Taylor enrolled in science at the University of Sydney, but he left in 1921 and did odd jobs until recruited to the New South Wales Police Force on 7 September 1923. On 26 September 1926 he sailed to Rabaul to join the police force of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. He held police rank for 23 years. In February 1927 he transferred to Salamaua as a patrol officer but in April 1928 was made inspector of police, Rabaul, to clean up police corruption. Promoted to assistant district officer, he was sent to the Sepik in May 1931, to Wau early in 1932, and in September that year to Kainantu, to open the first patrol post in the Highlands. The Highlands absorbed the rest of his life.

In March 1933 two plane flights confirmed populous valleys west of Kainantu, and Taylor joined forces with the prospector Mick Leahy to explore them. In three weeks they walked west through a wonderland of dense populations, manicured gardens, and beautiful scenery, to Kelua, near Mount Hagen, which Taylor named. They explored in every direction until August, when Taylor was ordered back to Kainantu. No explorers had so pleasant a walk and found so much new to Europeans in so short a time.

After taking leave Taylor turned to administering the new region. He set up a chain of posts each manned by a New Guinea policeman. They were to bring peace, build roads and keep track of Europeans. Keeping the peace was not easy, and not achieved. In 1934-35 Simbu people killed two missionaries, and for two months Jim chased the killers, fighting off attacks, shooting attackers, and taking 67 prisoners to Salamaua for trial. In January 1937 he was sent to Wau, and in August to Manus as acting district officer. He felt exiled, but in October was appointed to lead the Hagen-Sepik Patrol.

With John Black as his second-in-command, Taylor set out in March 1938 on the 15-month patrol—the biggest and longest in the history of New Guinea, comprising up to 300 people and covering about 1900 miles (3058 km). It made sense of the geography between Mount Hagen and the Netherlands New Guinea (Indonesian) border, pioneered wireless and air supply techniques, and found the Porgera goldfield. As tough as the 1933 walk was pleasant, it had little reward: World War II followed, and maps and information likely to help the Japanese were suppressed. In November 1941 Taylor was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

When the Japanese war began, Taylor was assistant district officer, Aitape, on the Sepik coast. He enlisted in the AIF on 14 February 1942, and in August was appointed an acting lieutenant, Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit. In March he was sent to Angoram to replace assistant district officer George Ellis. Ellis refused to hand over and on 20 March, with 48 policemen, ambushed Taylor and his police. Taylor was shot in the groin and retreated downriver. Ellis shot himself. When the Japanese came Taylor stayed in the back country, ambushing patrols and garrisons, rescuing Allied airmen, reporting troop and plane movements, and taking people inland to deny the Japanese labour. In September 1943 he went to Australia on a month’s leave. At a senior officers’ conference on New Guinea’s future in February 1944, he advocated the advancement of local people, thereby making enemies among Europeans. In March he returned to the Highlands as district officer, Bena Bena.

Taylor served with ANGAU until November 1944 when he was seconded to a committee to recommend on war compensation for local people. Promoted to major on 5 April 1945, he was attached to the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs from June to November 1945. In March 1946 he was placed on the Reserve of Officers. He had been appointed acting assistant-director, labour, for the newly unified Territory of Papua-New Guinea, second to the administrator, but on 28 September dropped salary to become district officer, Highlands. He was, he said, ‘the last emperor of the Middle Kingdom’. In 1947-48 he was suspended for two months then severely reprimanded for not reporting shootings by a patrol under a junior officer. He resigned on 19 October 1949, still an assistant district officer, married Yerima Manamp of Nangamp in the Waghi valley, and settled west of Goroka. He grew peanuts, vegetables and coffee, washed gold at Porgera, and served as president (1954-56) of the Highlands Farmers and Settlers Association and a member of both the Eastern and Western Highlands land boards. In 1977 he was appointed OBE by the government of Papua New Guinea. He died at home on 28 June 1987, and was buried at Kefamo Catholic Mission. His wife, two daughters and an adopted son survived him.

Jim’s speech and writing fused pragmatism and colourful literary flourishes. Strong, tough, brave, intelligent and dignified, he never lost sight of his vision for New Guineans. Where others saw savages he saw future citizens of the world. He was generations ahead of his time.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Gammage, The Sky Travellers (1998) and for bib
  • Jim Taylor papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bill Gammage, 'Taylor, James Lindsay (1901–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/taylor-james-lindsay-15678/text26876, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 October 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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