Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Tommy Kabu (1922–1969)

by Harry H. Jackman

This article was published:

Tommy Kabu (c.1922-1969), political leader, was born about 1922 at Urika, Papua, into the I'ai group of the Purari people of the Gulf of Papua, and named Koivi Au'a. He briefly attended the mission primary school at Urika before he ran away from home in 1935 and a few years later joined the Royal Papuan Constabulary at Samarai.

In 1942 Kabu and some Australians sailed in a small motor vessel to Cooktown, Queensland, fleeing from an anticipated Japanese invasion. At Cairns he was employed as an orderly by N. S. Pixley, an officer of the Royal Australian Navy, and served in H.M.A.S. Bundaberg in 1943-44, although he never formally enlisted in the Navy. After his repatriation in 1945, Kabu initiated a programme for economic and social change among the Purari. He collected money to facilitate a co-operative venture which involved production, transport and marketing.

In 1946 the Purari Sago Trading Co. was formed and a settlement, Rabia Camp, established in Port Moresby. Major socio-cultural changes were made in the Purari delta: villages were relocated in disregard of tribal enmities and boundaries; ravi (ceremonial houses) were destroyed and European-style houses built in their place; the power and status of chiefs were reduced; and other visible signs of the past were eradicated. Christianity was to be the members' religion and hiri motu, the lingua franca of Papua, their language.

By 1950 the company had collapsed. Its vessel, bought for £2000, was accidentally gutted and never sailed. The firm's licence to trade in sago was cancelled because it had failed to pay many of the suppliers. Kabu and ninety Purari living in Port Moresby then started another venture which sold sago brought from the delta, and operated a trading store, bakery, tea-house and laundry. The enterprise lasted only six years due to irregular supplies of sago, the unreliability of transport, overstaffing at the Port Moresby depot, faulty costing and unfamiliarity with commercial procedures. Management of the small and uncomplicated business was beyond the means of the handful of semi-literate Purari and their illiterate supporters. They subsequently sought advice and help from the government. Senior officials encouraged what became known as the 'Tommy Kabu Movement', but it encountered opposition from some junior officials in the field who perceived it as usurping their authority. In any case, the government lacked sufficient staff to provide the assistance needed and the missionaries did not like Kabu's influence.

Although Kabu was occasionally accused of being a cargo cultist or a trickster, he genuinely sought to bring about the material progress of his people. Three factors underpinned his leadership—his experience during World War II, his charisma and his programme. The movement expressed new ambitions and values which had come gradually from the previous decades of contact with European culture, but it took its specific form from the ideas of relatively young men returning from the areas of war. Kabu's long-term aim was to expand the movement to gain political power throughout Papua. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the House of Assembly in the 1968 elections. Kabu married twice. Survived by his wife, who came from the Central District of Papua, and by numerous children, he died in October 1969. Many Papua New Guineans regard him as a proto-nationalist.

Select Bibliography

  • SPC Social Development Notes (Noumea, New Caledonia), no 7, 1951
  • Oceania, 29, no 2, 1958, p 75
  • New Guinea Research Bulletin, no 14, 1967
  • Pacific Studies, 14, no 2, 1991, p 29
  • Canberra Anthropology, 15, no 2, 1992, p 89
  • Times of Papua New Guinea, 5 Sept 1986.

Citation details

Harry H. Jackman, 'Kabu, Tommy (1922–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 July 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]


Urika, Papua New Guinea


October, 1969 (aged ~ 47)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.