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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Eri, Sir Vincent Serei (1936–1993)

by Eric Johns

This article was published online in 2020

Sir Vincent Serei Eri (1936–1993), public servant, author, diplomat, and governor-general, was born on 12 September 1936 at Moveave village, Gulf Province, Territory of Papua, second of three children of Eri Haiveta, deacon of the London Missionary Society, and his wife Morasuru Lafe. Both parents died when Vincent was young, his father during World War II after falling ill when carrying supplies for Australian soldiers on the Bulldog Track, Owen Stanley Range. An aunt and uncle cared for the children and Eri’s early education was in Catholic mission schools at Terapo and Yule Island. At fifteen he enrolled at the selective Sogeri Education Centre, and after graduation remained there to complete a teacher-training course. Between 1956 and 1962 he taught at Gulf Province village schools. He married Margaret Karulaka, a nurse, at the Catholic Church, Orokolo, Gulf Province, in 1959.

To prepare the Territory of Papua and New Guinea for independence, the Australian administration sought promising local officers for quick advancement. Eri’s leadership qualities and ambition were soon recognised. In 1962 he was promoted to acting district inspector of schools, and in 1965 joined the staff of the Port Moresby Teachers College. He helped form, and became president of, the short-lived Local Teachers Association. Granted leave to study, he was among the first to graduate from the University of Papua New Guinea (BA, 1970). As a requirement of his creative literature studies, he wrote a story about ‘the white man’s justice and the native, magic and superstition and its hold on my people’ (Lloyd 1970, 24). His lecturer, Ulli Beier, had it published in 1970 under the title The Crocodile, bringing instant and lasting fame for Eri, as the first Papua New Guinean to produce a novel. Touring Australia to promote the book, he criticised the ‘condescending manner’ (Australian 1972, 9) of many white Australians towards his people, and was puzzled by a seeming apathy about how the large Australian investment in his country was being spent.

With his skills in high demand, Eri moved from one task to another as the need arose. From 1970 he was, in succession, a member of the committee of inquiry into higher education in Papua New Guinea, acting superintendent of primary education (1970), acting first assistant director of education (1972), and director of the Department of Information and Extension Services (1973). In 1974 he was appointed Papua New Guinea’s first consul-general in Sydney, and then became high commissioner (1976–79) in Canberra. He returned to Papua New Guinea in December 1979 when he assumed office as secretary of the Department of Defence. In 1981 he was appointed CMG.

Eri resigned from the public service in 1982 to pursue business interests. He became chairman (1984–90) of the finance committee of the University of Papua New Guinea. Increasingly involved in politics, in 1986 he was elected president of the People’s Action Party, newly formed by the parliamentarian Ted Diro. In January 1990, to further the influence of his party, Diro, now deputy prime minister, broke ranks with government parties and, with Opposition support, had Eri appointed governor-general. Eri was knighted the following month. In September the following year a Leadership Tribunal found Diro guilty of eighty-one charges of corruption, but Eri precipitated a ‘mini constitutional crisis’ (Saffu 1998, 505) by refusing to dismiss him, as he was obliged to do under the constitution. Eri’s action was prompted by a friendship with his fellow Papuan, and their close political allegiance. Prime Minister Rabbie Namaliu initiated procedures to dismiss Eri but he resigned on 1 October before any action was taken; Diro resigned the same day.

At the 1992 general election, Sir Serei stood unsuccessfully for the parliamentary seat of Moresby North West Open. He died of a heart attack on 25 May the next year at his home at Hohola, Port Moresby; his wife and their four sons and two daughters survived him. After a requiem mass at Hohola Sacred Heart Church, at which Diro read the eulogy, Eri’s casket was flown to Moveave for burial the same day. Described as embodying a mixture of ‘anger and humour, of diffidence and strength’ (Lloyd 1970, 24), he is remembered both for his achievements as a pioneer public servant, and for a failure to follow his constitutional obligations as governor-general in 1991. The Crocodile endures as an icon of Papua New Guinea literature and as an inspiration for other writers. In 2010 the annual national literary prize was named to honour the novel.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Australian. ‘New Guinea Straight Talk.’ 7 March 1972, 9
  • Beier, Ulli. Decolonising the Mind. Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2005
  • Eri, Robert H. Personal communication
  • Grubel, James. ‘Colourful Life of the Queen’s Man in PNG.’ Canberra Times, 2 October 1991, 14
  • Lloyd, John. ‘Vincent Eri.’ Australian External Territories 10, no. 4 (November 1970): 22–24
  • Minol, Bernard. ‘Eri, Sir Serei Vincent (1936–93).’ In Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English, edited by Eugene Benson and L. W. Conolly, 444. Oxford: Routledge, 2005
  • Nelson, Hank. ‘Papua New Guinea (November 1990–October 1991): Crises and Continuity. Journal of Pacific History 26, no. 3 (1991): 74–79
  • Ryan, Peter, ed. Encyclopaedia of Papua New Guinea. Vol. 1, 374–75. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press
  • Saffu, Yaw. ‘January–December 1991.’ In A Papua New Guinea Political Chronicle 1967–1991, edited by Clive Moore with Mary Kooyman, 497–508. Bathurst, NSW: Crawford House Publishing, 1998.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Eric Johns, 'Eri, Sir Vincent Serei (1936–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/eri-sir-vincent-serei-29673/text36667, published online 2020, accessed online 21 September 2020.

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