10 October 2017
Jim Sinclair OBE, recorder of PNG’s colonial history, dies at 89
Story by Keith Jackson
Noosa – James (Jim) Sinclair OBE, 89, the famed post-war kiap and prolific author of Papua New Guinea’s history, especially that of colonial times since World War II, died just after midnight yesterday at Sunshine Coast University Hospital in Queensland.
He had contracted a severe form of influenza which was subsequently compounded by pneumonia and other complications.
James Patrick Sinclair was born in Dubbo, NSW, on 18 April 1928. He attended Dubbo High School, Sydney Grammar School and the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) in Sydney.
In November 1947, he joined the Department of District Services and Native Affairs in the Administration of what was then the Territory of Papua and New Guinea.
After attending an orientation course at ASOPA he travelled to PNG in August 1948 as a cadet patrol officer and served on many outposts as he progressed through the field officer ranks.
Between 1969 and 1974, he was the last Australian district commissioner presiding over what is now Eastern Highlands Province.
Sinclair conducted extensive exploratory and pacification patrols in Morobe and the Southern Highlands, opening the Koroba station in 1955, the Lake Kopiago base camp in 1956 and exploring then uncontrolled areas as far as the Strickland River.
In 1959 he married Janece (Jan) Marie McGrath and they had three children. In an important way, Sinclair owed his later career as a successful author to Jan.
Also in 1959, he was appointed as officer in charge of the Wau sub-district, later serving in similar roles in Finschhafen and Lae before moving to the Eastern Highlands in 1968 as district commissioner.
Sinclair retired in 1975 around the time Papua New Guinea’s independence and embarked on his second career as a prolific recorder of PNG history, becoming a full-time author.
His first book, ‘Behind the Ranges’¸ had been published in 1966 and told of his exploratory work in Morobe and the Southern Highlands. His publishing oeuvre ultimately came to comprise nearly 40 books (see bibliography below).
Sinclair was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1992, an honorary doctorate from the Australian National University in 1999 and a Companion in the Order of the Star of Melanesia in 2008.
“We were so fortunate to have Jim Sinclair among us,” said Peter Salmon, publisher of the Ex Kiap website.
Fellow kiap turned author Phil Fitzpatrick said: “Jim acted as a kind of focus point for kiaps. He was a quiet, gentle man; very humble”.
“Jim was one of nature’s gentlemen,” Peter Brindley, who served under him in the Eastern Highlands in 1970, told the Ex Kiap website. “The world is a lesser place now.”
“One of the old school,” said Ross Johnson. “His passing represents the end of an era. “Rest in peace, my friend, bihain bi mi lukim yu.”
Long time PNG resident Rob Parer CMG OBE observed that “Jim was certainly PNG’s man of letters. He wrote such complete accounts of so many diverse subjects. Thousands of pages.”
And Parer disclosed how close Papua New Guinea and Australia had come to being denied Sinclair’s chronicles. “A short time after she married him, Jan said she saw him tearing up a huge pile of sheets of paper held together by long bolts,” Parer said.
“When she asked him what he was doing, Jim said ‘just some stuff I’ve written and everyone in New Guinea writes stuff.’
“Jan stopped him, and the rest is history,” Parer added.
Behind the Ranges: Patrolling in New Guinea, Melbourne University Press, 1966.
The Outside Man: Jack Hides of Papua, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1969 (reprinted 1971)
Sepik Pilot: Wing Commander Bobby Gibbes DSO, DFC and Bar, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1971 (reprinted 1977)
The Highlanders, Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1973 (reprinted 1980)
Wigmen of Papua, Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1973
Faces of New Guinea, Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1973
The Arts of Papua New Guinea, Robert Brown & Associates, Port Moresby, 1977.
Colourful Papua New Guinea, Robert Brown & Associates, Port Moresby, 1977
Wings of Gold: How the Aeroplane Developed New Guinea, Pacific Publications, Sydney, 1978 (reprinted 1983)
Up From South, by Jack O’Neill with notes and background by James Sinclair. Oxford University Press, 1979
Cape York to Coolangatta, Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1981
South Pacific Brewery, Robert Brown & Associates, Bathurst, 1983
Uniting a Nation: The Telecommunication and Postal Services of Papua New Guinea, Oxford University Press, Sydney, 1984
Papua New Guinea: The First 100 Years, Robert Brown & Associates, Bathurst, 1985 (reprinted 1989)
Balus: The Aeroplane in Papua New Guinea. Vol One: The Early Years, Robert Brown & Associates, Bathurst, 1986
Balus: The Aeroplane in Papua New Guinea. Vol Two: The Rise of Talair, Robert Brown & Associates, Bathurst, 1988
Balus: The Aeroplane in Papua New Guiea. Vol Three: Wings of a Nation, Robert Brown& Associates, Bathurst, 1990
Last Frontiers: The Explorations of Ivan Champion of Papua, Pacific Press, Gold Coast, 1988
To Find a Path: The Life and Times of the Royal Pacific Islands Regiment. Vol One:
Yesterday’s Heroes 1885-1950, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 1990
To Find a Path: Vol Two: Keeping the Peace 1945-1975, Crawford House Press, Bathurst, 1992
South Pacific: The Games of 1990, Crawford House Press, Bathurst, 1991
PTC: Uniting a Nation Through the 1980’s, Crawford House Press, Bathurst, 1993.
The Money Tree: Coffee in Papua New Guinea, Crawford House Press, Bathurst, 1995
Golden Gateway: Lae and the Province of Morobe, Crawford House Press, Bathurst, 1998
MastaMak: The Land Surveyors of Papua New Guinea, Crawford House Publishing, Adelaide, 2001
The Papua Club, Crawford House Publishing, Adelaide, 2002
Madang. Divine Word University Press, Madang, 2005
Steamships Trading Company, Alan Caudell & Associates, Cairns, 2008
Gavamani: The Magisterial Service of British New Guinea, Crawford House Publishing, Adelaide, 2009
Mr B: The Life and Times of Sir Brian Bell, Alan Caudell & Associates, Cairns, 2010
Diwai: A History of Divine Word University, 2013
The Middle Kingdom – a major history of the Highlands Districts of PNG from the beginnings to Independence, Crawford House Publishing, Adelaide, 2014
The Creek: Edie Creek and the Morobe goldfield, Crawford House Publishing, Adelaide, 2015