Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gilbert Munro Turnbull (1890–1938)

by Helga M. Griffin

This article was published:

Gilbert Munro Turnbull (1890-1938), writer, architect and civil servant, was born on 11 September 1890 at Llandudno, Carnarvonshire, Wales, son of James Turnbull, hotelkeeper, and his wife Elizabeth, née Munro. Educated privately at Fleetwood, Lancashire, England, Gilbert worked briefly for the Fleetwood Chronicle and qualified as an architect before adventuring professionally to the United States of America, Canada, Mexico, Tahiti and, in 1913, Papua.

After trading copra and planting coconuts, in February 1915 he took employment at Samarai as a clerk in the treasury and postal department. Promoted draughtsman with the department of public works in Port Moresby in December 1916, he frequently acted as superintendent; from about 1920 to 1934 he was government architect with the right of private practice. In a financially depressed capital built almost entirely of wood and galvanized iron, Turnbull used the new technology of reinforced concrete for spartan, functional buildings such as the European hospital, the treasury and post office; he also designed the Samarai war memorial hall and plantation compounds. Intrepid, lively in conversation, gregarious, but sharp with fools, Turnbull accompanied villagers on fishing expeditions. He travelled to remote areas, observing how Australians seldom extended mateship to Papuans and how fragile so-called civilization was 'at the jungle's edge'. His 1936 obituary of the bombastic kiap, C. A. W. Monckton, ironically defined 'pacification' as making Papua 'safe for company promoters'.

Frequently using the pseudonym 'Tauwarra' (Motu for 'fighting-man'), Turnbull published in Australian journals over 150 anecdotal paragraphs, numerous articles and at least 90 short stories. Three of his novels were serialized: Disenchantment (1932), Paradise Plumes (1934) and Mountains of the Moon (1935). A fourth novel, Portrait of a Savage (Sydney, 1943), created arguably 'the most complex character in colonial fiction before World War II'. Rejected by eight English and three Australian publishers as 'unclean', Portrait was probably too topically related to the notorious case of an alleged child molester, Sergeant Stephen Gorumbaru, who had been executed in 1934 under Sir Hubert Murray's White Woman's Protection Ordinance. Though Turnbull had defended the Americans' use of lynch law in 1922, the novel compassionately depicted a mission-reared Papuan, caught in the conflict of imported and tribal values, who is hanged after being falsely accused of rape by a White 'seductress'. Despite Beatrice Grimshaw's stylistic advice, Portrait was richly textured with passages of Gothic horror. It was reviewed as 'new literature' about 'New Guinea's unequal race relations', a perception possibly influenced by wartime appreciation of the 'fuzzy wuzzy angels'.

Turnbull retired to Urunga, New South Wales, in 1934. He died at Bellingen of respiratory disease on 7 September 1938 and was buried in the Anglican section of the local cemetery. His wife—Jean Doris, née Winn, whom he had married on 31 August 1921 in the Presbyterian manse at Armidale, New South Wales—and daughter survived him. His unfinished novel 'Maraguna' was completed by his biographer, Lewis Lett, but never published.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Inglis, Not a White Woman Safe (Canb, 1974)
  • N. Krauth (ed), New Guinea Images in Australian Literature (Brisb, 1982)
  • Territory of Papua, Annual Report, 1914-1934
  • Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 17, no 1, 1982, p 51
  • private information.

Citation details

Helga M. Griffin, 'Turnbull, Gilbert Munro (1890–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Tauwarra

11 September, 1890
Llandudno, Carnarvonshire, Wales


7 September, 1938 (aged 47)
Bellingen, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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