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Francis Hagai (1940–1974)

by James Griffin

This article was published:

Francis Hagai (c.1940-1974), cult leader, was born about 1940 at Hahalis, Buka Island, Bougainville district, in the mandated Territory of New Guinea. He completed primary level schooling at St Joseph's, Rigu, and one year of teacher-training for Catholic schools. There was no government school in Buka and Hagai became contemptuous of the Church's failure to provide utilitarian education. He apostatized after allegedly being shamed publicly by a confessor for a sexual sin. Tall, athletic, practical and commanding, Hagai was a militant lieutenant (from 1960) to the visionary president of the Hahalis Welfare Society, 'King' John Teosin, whose sister Magdalena Hapius he married. Hagai was a manager-secretary of the H.W.S. in 1962 and later vice-president.

Although continuous with Buka protest movements from 'German time' (1886-1914), H.W.S.—with some 4500 members in 1965—was not crassly millenarian. Rather, said Hagai, it was an 'idea of working', in which land, labour and profits were pooled to capitalize machinery, trade stores and marketing. Residually Christian, H.W.S. syncretised a sori lotu ('sorry church'); it revived putative traditional practices like free love, but was also influenced by contemporary European trends, thus breaking bride price and the control by elders over marriage. Prurient media sensationalized the H.W.S. 'baby garden' in which adolescent girls promiscuously conceived and reared infants. 'We know . . . that we are on the road to hell', said Hagai, 'so we pray to God in our own way so that He will be sorry for us when we die'.

In 1961 a local council was imposed on Buka; the alternative to joining was payment of a head tax. H.W.S. defied the government and in February 1962, with Hagai leading, two 'battles' with the riot squad occurred. Forty Bukas and 25 police were injured; 461 people were arrested. Branded the most dangerous rebels seen in the Territory and compared to the secessionists of Katanga, Congo (Zaïre), Teosin and Hagai were imprisoned in Port Moresby. Leftist organizations in Australia protested against colonial brutality; one provided legal aid. In general the Supreme Court remitted sentences; H.W.S. exulted, but the tax was paid. Not wanting the spotlight on its trusteeship, Canberra cooled the conflict. To impress Teosin and Hagai, they were officially shown the facilities of Port Moresby and its Hanuabada council in action. The administration began building a trans-island road, ensuring prosperity for tree-crops as well as police access. The Church sponsored commercial projects to forestall further alienation; in 1966 Hagai was invited to Sydney by the Anglican priest Alf Clint to undertake a business course. H.W.S. claimed a double victory and continued to affront the clergy who fulminated against these agents of anti-Christ.

Hagai stood for parliament in 1964 and 1968, but hardly campaigned outside H.W.S. villages and polled only local votes. Council patronage and mission anathemas were too strong, although inter-group relations gradually improved. By the 1970s H.W.S. attempted larger enterprises which failed. As one of its few associates with either mechanical or business skills, Hagai handled its public relations. Yet, while viable, H.W.S. was patently inefficient.

With the approach in 1972-75 of Papua New Guinea's independence, H.W.S. joined mainstream provincial politics. Hagai participated in the dissident 'Bougainville Awareness' seminar in 1972, paving the way for Teosin to join in the dissolution of Australia's 'puppet' local councils in favour of more germane community governments. No longer embattled, Hahalis was so riven by feuds over assets, status and controls that there were credible allegations of foul play when Hagai died on 7 July 1974 at Arawa hospital, ostensibly following a drink-driving motor accident at Basbi, Buka.

Hagai was a virile leader who sought to reconcile liberation from custom with traditional communality. Expatriate allegations that he had been a communist in any Marxist sense were fatuous. His was an autochthonous movement aspiring to modernization through self-rule.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Willey, Assignment New Guinea (Brisb, 1965)
  • A. M. Kiki, Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime (Melb, 1968)
  • J. Ryan, The Hot Land (Melb, 1971)
  • H. Laracy, Marists and Melanesians (Canb, 1976)
  • M. and E. Rimoldi, Hahalis and the Labour of Love (Oxford, Eng, 1992)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 21 Feb, 3 Apr 1972
  • Australian Institute of Political Science, New Guinea and Australia, 1, no 6, 1966
  • Post-Courier, 10 July 1974
  • private information.

Citation details

James Griffin, 'Hagai, Francis (1940–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Hahalis, Baka Island, Papua New Guinea


7 July, 1974 (aged ~ 34)
Arawa, Papua New Guinea

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.