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Yali (1912–1975)

by Elfriede Hermann

This article was published:

Yali (c.1912-1975), political and religious leader, was born about 1912 at Sor village, Madang district, German New Guinea, son of Singina and his wife Garang. Educated in the local tradition, he underwent male initiation rites. By 1928 he was an indentured labourer at Wau, working as a waiter in the hotel. He returned to Sor about 1931 and married. As village tultul, he accompanied Australian government patrols through the area.

After his wife died, Yali joined the Armed Native Constabulary in 1937 and was sent to Rabaul for training. While he was serving in Lae, the Japanese occupied the town in February 1942 and he helped to evacuate labourers to their homes. In June he was posted to Talasea, New Britain, for coast-watching service. His party was attacked by Japanese soldiers in November and withdrawn a month later. Yali's loyal service earned him the rank of sergeant of police and a transfer to Queensland for a six-month training course in jungle warfare. In 1943 he resigned from the police force and joined the Allied Intelligence Bureau.

About June Yali returned to New Guinea to take part in 'M' Special Unit operations, monitoring Japanese troop movements at Bongu and Finschhafen. Again ordered to Queensland, he spent five months training recruits for the A.I.B. and was promoted sergeant major, natives. In March 1944 he was one of a twelve-man party of coastwatchers sent ashore near Hollandia from an American submarine in advance of a planned landing in the following month. Two days later the party was ambushed and five of its members were killed. Separated from other survivors, Yali and another soldier set out for the allied lines, equipped with a carbine and a compass, but lacking food and matches. After an epic, three-month, 120-mile (193 km) journey, Yali reached Aitape alone.

When World War II ended, Yali drew on the knowledge of Western life gleaned from his three visits to Australia and embarked on propaganda tours in the Madang district to promote his vision for the future. He set up rules for village life, urged his compatriots to engage in the cash-crop economy, encouraged them to strive for education, and prophesied self-government and independence for the Territory of Papua-New Guinea. Yali also initiated a revitalization of traditional religion. In a short time he emerged as the powerful charismatic leader of a social movement in the Madang district.

Tall, well spoken and dignified, he gained the support of the district officer J. K. McCarthy who saw him as promoting the government's objectives. But by the end of the 1940s European observers, alarmed at his influence, denounced the movement as a 'cargo cult'. In 1950 Yali was sentenced to prison terms of six months for deprivation of liberty and six years for incitement to rape. After his release in 1955, embittered by this experience, he allowed the movement to be subverted by followers who ascribed superhuman powers to him and engaged in ritual practices.

Ambitious to participate formally in regional and national politics, Yali served as president (1964-66) of the Rai Coast Council. In 1964 and 1968 he stood unsuccessfully as a candidate for the Rai Coast Open electorate in the House of Assembly elections. Of his numerous traditional marriages, the longest lasting were those with Sunggum and with Rebecca. He died on 26 September 1975 at Sor, having lived long enough to witness the declaration of his country's independence.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Feldt, The Coast Watchers (Melb, 1946)
  • P. Lawrence, Road Belong Cargo (Melb, 1964)
  • D. G. Bettison et al (eds), The Papua-New Guinea Elections, 1964 (Canb, 1965)
  • A. L. Epstein et al (eds), The Politics of Dependence (Canb, 1971)
  • L. Morauta, Beyond the Village (Lond, 1974)
  • E. Hermann, Emotionen und Historizität (Berlin, 1995).

Citation details

Elfriede Hermann, 'Yali (1912–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 19 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Sor village, Madang district, Papua New Guinea


26 September, 1975 (aged ~ 63)
Sor, Madang district, Papua New Guinea

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.