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Michael James (Mick) Leahy (1901–1979)

by James Griffin

This article was published:

Michael James (Mick) Leahy (1901-1979), explorer, was born on 26 February 1901 at Toowoomba, Queensland, fourth of nine children of Irish migrants Daniel Leahy, railway guard, and his wife Ellen, née Stone. He was educated at Christian Brothers' College, Toowoomba. He eventually became leader of the most enterprising expatriate 'clan' on the New Guinea frontier, where from the 1930s a million people were brought under Australian control. He can be said to have closed the European freebooting saga begun by Cortes in the sixteenth century.

After a 'rough and ready' childhood, Mick became a railway clerk but abandoned the job as a dead end. A non-smoker and near-teetotaller, tall, well-built, brown-eyed, ruminative, eloquent, commanding, restless and indefatigable, he abandoned freelance timbercutting in 1926, leaving his 'T-model Ford on the side of the road' on hearing of the Edie Creek gold strike. Misgauging the rugged, humid terrain, lacking equipment, suffering from near-fatal malaria, he retreated to contract construction and labour management and, joined by his brothers Patrick (1899-1963), James (1909-81) and Daniel (b.1912), learned the skills of prospecting and survival.

In 1930 Mick and Michael Dwyer were staked to prospect the Ramu tributaries. Tracing the Dunantina they glimpsed the Goroka valley, then unexpectedly were led south to the junction with the unknown Wahgi where bloated corpses intimated dense populations westwards although the interior of New Guinea was thought to be 'simply a continuation of precipitous mountains and miasmic jungles'. With only sixteen carriers and few guns, they encountered Highlands groups who perceived them as ancestors and tried to rub off their white skins, crossed the cordillera and descended by canoe to Port Romilly on the Gulf of Papua to learn they had traversed the mainland and discovered the Purari headwaters.

In November 1930 Leahy and Dwyer were the first Europeans into the Gafuku (Asaro) valley. Mick accepted a stake from New Guinea Goldfields Ltd in 1931 and, after aerial reconnaissance, a decisive factor in Highlands exploration and then almost unique to New Guinea, led an expedition into the Watut valley. On a second trip to the Watut, Mick was caught unprepared for a Kukukuku pre-dawn attack, was battered and partly deafened by a 'pineapple-stone' club and his brother Paddy was seriously wounded. No longer crediting the dictum that 'nothing more lethal than a walking stick was needed to patrol or prospect', Mick henceforth went well-convoyed, demarcated his camps with fishline and sentinels, practised forbearance but shot to kill. According to his adulatory retainers 'Masta Mick' never missed; between them some hundred warriors were shot. Women, children and non-belligerents were sacrosanct; protecting his carrier line and teaching the heinousness of killing white men were paramount. His attitude on preventive measures hardened ('I'd like to murder the murdering bastards') as he became increasingly disgusted by Highlanders' indiscriminate savagery, though he admired their virility and ceremonious skills. Uncharacteristically solicitous for that time, he lost only one 'boy' through illness during ten expeditions.

Spurred perhaps more by fame than fortune, Leahy took correspondence lessons in photography and journalism and carefully kept a diary. His meticulously organized expeditions in 1933 brought himself, Danny and Charles Marshall of N.G.G.L. to a Pisgah view of the populous Wahgi valley from Mount Erimbari on 15 February. In April with J. L. Taylor, representing an administration urged by the League of Nations to fill in cartographical blanks, the Leahys crossed Chimbu territory to Mount Hagen, tracked the Baiyer River towards the Sepik and, via the lower Jimi, returned to climb Mount Hagen and explore south to the Wahgi-Nebilyer divide. Although Mick providently wrote to his friend, Father William Ross, at Alexishafen, to bring his mission quickly to 'the real New Guinea', he could not take communion because of the nubile girls who were offered transactionally and who gave themselves so unabashedly to verify, as one acknowledged cheerfully fifty years later, his appetising humanity. Mick deprecated the passing of perceived primeval sexual freedoms and detested mission-civilized (especially Lutheran) 'pimps'. To Taylor, Mick said: 'Jim, good country, good climate, good kanakas, too good to find gold in'.

Further expeditions in 1934 began with a punitive sortie against the killers of prospector Bernard McGrath at Finintigu, followed by probes north, south and west of Mount Hagen, the climbing of Papua's highest peak, Mount Giluwe (14,340 feet, 4371 m), the penetration of the Enga to twenty miles (32 km) past Wabag and confirmation that the Wahgi joined the Purari. The Highlands were now open: aerodromes were enthusiastically stamped out by myriad bare feet and villagers sent to the coast to bring back amazing tales of white men's cargo. Mick's photographs and films remain a unique record of the saga of 'first contact' in an award-winning film of the same name (1983).

When Sir Hubert Murray submitted that the Papuan patrol officer Jack Hides had discovered Mounts Giluwe and Ialibu and the Purari source, an acrimonious public controversy erupted. Mick went to London with his brother Jim in 1935 and forced a hearing with the Royal Geographical Society, after branding its members as 'phonies'. In 1936 he received its Murchison grant and his reports were published in its journal. The Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society then protested about the killings to the League of Nations. An administration enquiry duly conducted by Jim Taylor exonerated Mick but Italian diplomats noted his reprisals in justifying action in Abyssinia. Further recognition came in Britain and the United States of America where with ghost-writer Maurice Crain he published The land that time forgot (1937). In 1959 he was made an honorary member of the U.S. Explorers' Club and in 1971, with moon-walker Neil Armstrong, received its Explorers' medal. They had explored respectively the last terrestrial and the first extra-terrestrial 'unknowns'.

The Leahys found appreciable pay-dirt only at Kuta (Western Highlands). On 5 March 1940 Leahy married at St John's Church, Darlinghurst, Sydney, a 19-year-old North Queenslander Jeannette Gwendolin Best; she was an alumna of Sydney Church of England Girls' Grammar School. Jim Taylor was best man; Margaret Dovey (later Whitlam) was bridesmaid. They had five children who went into professions and business but Mick could not acknowledge three mixed-race sons at Mount Hagen who came under Danny's patronage and thrived. When the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit offered Mick only a sergeant's rank, he organized an assignment to the U.S. chief engineer as a Royal Australian Air Force flight lieutenant. He glided into remote Telefomin to build an airstrip and was awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom with bronze palm in 1948.

Post-war Australia offered him in 1952 a mere M.B.E. which he temporarily declined when refused a £25,000 war service loan. He felt he had earned generous Highlands agricultural leases, and saw vendetta in being overlooked but, after years of delay, acquired mixed farming properties at Zenag on the Wau-Lae road. He locked horns with kiaps and villagers over policies, rights and tenure, was left off the Morobe District Advisory Council until protests were lodged, and was a hapless litigant against the administration. Yet he prospered after Papua New Guinea's independence although he had fulminated in the press against E. G. Whitlam's campaign for it, envisaging aid from 'hardworking, frugal and generous Australians' being despoiled by cargo cultists. In 1968 he could decline to have a black university student in his house because it would upset his servants and, though well-read, hoped George Wallace would win the American presidency. Survived by his wife, he died on 7 March 1979 and was buried at Zenag with Catholic rites. Ewunga, his trusty 'shoot-boy', after whom he had named his most promising gold-bearing creek, hoped to join him soon. Two natural sons came unrecognized to his funeral in a Mercedes-Benz and wept. Leahy belonged to the Imperial Service Club, Sydney, and the Returned Servicemen's League, Lae. His portrait hangs in the Pioneers' Club, Mount Hagen.

His brothers also settled in New Guinea as farmers. James pioneered the coffee industry and was a principal in the Highlands oligopoly, Collins & Leahy.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Simpson, Plumes and Arrows (Syd, 1962)
  • Second Waigani Seminar, The History of Melanesia (Canb and Port Moresby, 1968)
  • J. P. Sinclair, The Outside Man (Melb, 1969)
  • C. Ashton, ‘The Leahy family’, J. Griffin (ed), Papua New Guinea Portraits (Canb, 1978)
  • R. Connolly and R. Anderson, First Contact film (Syd, 1983), and research material for film (held by them, Sydney)
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, Aug, Dec 1935, Mar 1940
  • Geographical Journal, 87 (1936), no 3, p 229
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 1960-61, p 6
  • Papua New Guinea Law Reports, Supreme Court, 1971-72, p 442
  • Journal of Papua New Guinea Society, 3 (1969), no 1, p 32, 6 (1972), no 2, p 85
  • Post-Courier (Papua-New Guinea ), 15 July 1970
  • Bulletin, 2 Mar, 24 Apr, 22 May, 26 June, 10 July, 7 Aug 1979, 5 July, 9, 16 Aug 1983
  • Times (Papua New Guinea), 29 May 1981
  • I. Willis, An Epic Journey (M.A. sub-thesis, University of Papua New Guinea, 1969)
  • private information.

Citation details

James Griffin, 'Leahy, Michael James (Mick) (1901–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


26 February, 1901
Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia


7 March, 1979 (aged 78)
Zenag, Papua New Guinea

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