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Lepani Kaiuwekalu Watson (1926–1993)

by Andrew Connelly and Arthur Smedley

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Lepani Kaiuwekalu Watson (1926–1993), politician, lay preacher, community leader, and welfare officer, was born in 1926 at Vakuta village on the island of the same name in the Trobriand group, Territory of Papua, elder son of Watisoni Upawapa, chief of the top-ranking Tabalu dala (matriline), and his wife Iribouma of the second-ranked Toliwaga dala. In his early teens Lepani passed the examination to enter the Oyabia Methodist mission school at Losuia station, Kiriwina Island, where he worked between lessons as a gardener and fisherman to earn his keep. The closure of the school during the Pacific War in 1942 brought an end to his formal education. He worked in the kitchen for an Australian army survey team at Oyabia, as an interpreter for a United States Army officer, and then as a foreman for the American quartermaster. Another American officer tutored him in English and taught him to type. In 1944 he was sent to the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit’s school for native medical orderlies on Gemo Island, Port Moresby, for six months’ training, returning to work at Losuia as a clerk at the native hospital. He married Sarah Charles, daughter of a Trobriand Methodist minister, in 1945.

After the war Watson worked as a district administration clerk at Losuia until transferring to the Department of Treasury in Port Moresby in 1950. He became increasingly involved in religious activities and began to preach and provide welfare support to Methodist migrant workers from eastern Papua and the New Guinea islands. Reassigned to the Department of Native Affairs as a welfare assistant in 1954, he formed (1955) the Methodist Welfare Society, becoming its first president. A member-funded hall at Badili (opened in 1957) became a hub for religious and social services to migrants from the provinces. With his wife, he became involved in civic groups, government boards, and social organisations, including the Kaugere Parents and Citizens’ Association (president), the Council of Social Service of Papua, the Lands Council, the Child Welfare Council, the Port Moresby Soccer Association, the Trobriand Islands Community Club in Port Moresby, and the Girl Guides Council of Papua. After moving to the new Hohola settlement in 1961, he became the welfare assistant there, and the family home hosted a steady stream of visitors and community meetings. The Watsons took a six-month Methodist Overseas Mission-funded tour of Australia in 1963 to study church groups and social organisations.

In 1964 Watson was urged by a group of followers to contest the Esa’ala-Losuia Open electorate, which included the Trobriand Islands, in the first Papua and New Guinea House of Assembly elections. The only candidate with a campaign committee supplying funding, he won by campaigning energetically on a platform of economic development and steady progress towards independence. His reputation in the islands, the active support of Papuan Methodist clergymen, and his father’s extensive traditional kula trade network were additional factors. The same year he was chosen by the Australian administration to address the United Nations General Assembly. He was sent with a prepared speech and orders not to mention independence. Despite this, following discussions with African anti-colonialists before the meeting, he spoke at length on the subject. Appointed a parliamentary under-secretary for trade and industry during his first term, he took a leading role in the development and management of Koki market, the first large market in Port Moresby. Having been a popular lay preacher for more than a decade, in the late 1960s he received orders from the Methodist leadership to submit to training for ordination. He refused, leading to a permanent falling out with the church; previously a teetotaller, he took up drinking beer in protest.

Re-elected as the member for Kula Open District in 1968, Watson continued to advocate for workers and the community. He was a member of the board of trustees of the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, and served on the boards of the interim council of the University of Papua and New Guinea, the Trobriand Islands Savings and Loan Society, and the Volunteer Service Association. In 1971 he was a member of a parliamentary delegation to Canberra to discuss the question of independence.

After contesting unsuccessfully the 1972 elections, he retired from national politics and returned to his home village where the next year he was elected a ward councillor. In the Milne Bay provincial elections of December 1978, he was elected member for Kiriwina, serving as deputy premier and minister for commerce (1979–82), and was then elected premier (1983–86). Long critical of anthropological research on the Trobriand Islands, during his term he froze further work until local controls on fieldwork and publication were put in place. He was appointed OBE (1979) and CMG (1985). After failing to retain his seat in the 1986 elections, he was elected president (1986–89) of the Kiriwina community government. Survived by his wife, one daughter, a son and an adopted son (one son had predeceased him), he died of cancer on 10 February 1993 at Vakuta village, and was buried in the local cemetery.

A foundational figure in Papua New Guinea’s national history, Watson greatly contributed to the social and cultural growth of Port Moresby and the Trobriand Islands and, as one of the first generation of PNG nationals to enter parliament, to the political development of the country. Famously short in stature, he was known for his easy-going nature, warm sense of humour, and skilful oratory. His son Charles Lepani later became high commissioner to Australia.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Bettison, D. G., C. A. Hughes, and P. W. van der Veur, eds. The Papua-New Guinea Elections 1964. Canberra, ACT: Australian National University, 1965
  • Epstein, A. L., R. S. Parker, and M. Reay, eds. The Politics of Dependence: Papua New Guinea 1968. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1971
  • Fink, Ruth A. ‘Background of a Politician.’ Quadrant 9, no. 4, (July–August 1965): 7–13
  • Fink, Ruth A. ‘Esa'ala-Losuia Open Electorate: Campaigning with Lepani Watson.’ Journal of the Polynesian Society 73, no. 2 (June 1964): 192–7
  • Lepani, Charles. Personal communication
  • Lepani, Charles. ‘Reflections on Early Years as a Methodist.’ Unpublished manuscript 2010. Copy on ADB file
  • Post-Courier (Port Moresby). ‘Lepani Watson: He Gave Much to Many.’ 26 February 1993, 11

Additional Resources

Citation details

Andrew Connelly and Arthur Smedley, 'Watson, Lepani Kaiuwekalu (1926–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 13 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Vakuta, Papua New Guinea


10 February, 1993 (aged ~ 67)
Papua New Guinea

Cause of Death

cancer (bowel)

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.

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.