“The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
New Guinea, just a little north of Australia, has always been a complicated place. It’s the second largest island after Greenland. There are 852 different languages spoken there by a range of culturally diverse groups (including Papuan peoples who likely migrated there 50,000 years in the past as well as migrant Austronesian latecomers who arrived just a few millennia ago) and even today the country is one of the world’s least explored. It is known to have numerous groups of uncontacted peoples, and researchers believe there are many undiscovered species of flora and fauna in the interior. If I were a die-hard cryptozoologist, I would be headed there right now looking for some archaic survival, but that’s not how I roll. anomalistically speaking. One has to figure that a mysterious and unexplored land populated by live critters we’ve likely never encountered, is similarly awash in preternatural interlopers. Turns out we have at least one demonstrative instance of high weirdness to give us the heebee-geebees, courtesy of Captain Charles Arthur Whitmore Monckton (1873-1936), a sometimes colonial sub-administrator of what was referred to as British New Guinea at about the turn of the 20th Century.
Charles Monckton was born the son of a surgeon in Invercargill, New Zealand. After he graduated Wanganui College in 1895, he set off for British New Guinea hoping to secure a position in the magisterial service, but apparently his resume wasn’t up to snuff, so he tried his hand at gold prospecting and pearling (presumably not with a lot of successs), wrote a few well-received articles on native customs and returned to New Zealand to study navigation. Undaunted by his earlier rejection by the New Guinea colonial administration, in 1897 he sailed a small boat from Sydney to Port Moresby, and this time was offered “relief posts as resident magistrate in the Eastern Division, the Mekeo district and the South-Eastern Division during 1897-99. His first permanent appointment was to the newly created North-Eastern Division; he arrived at Cape Nelson with the new lieutenant-governor, (Sir) George Le Hunte, on 4 April 1900. This station was established to gain better control over numerous belligerent indigenous clans as well as to provide law and order for miners on the Yodda goldfields” (Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, 1986). He was considered tough, efficient, and ruthless, which eventually caused him some problems, especially when he made some unauthorized forays into the German controlled sections of New Guinea.
New Guinea was a bit of a legal problem, colonially speaking. In 1883, Sir Thomas McIlwraith, the Premier of Queensland ordered its annexation in the name of the British government. Apparently, he didn’t have that kind of authority, and the British government repudiated his actions, but before we ascribe any altruistic motivations, by 1884, New Guinea became a British Protectorate in 1884, when Australia promised financial support. By 1888, the British were annexing adjacent islands willy-nilly and creating the political entity called British New Guinea. The Northern part of New Guinea had been under German commercial control since 1884, and in the years leading up to World War I, things were a bit tense (the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 ceded all of New Guinea to Australia). Monckton, despite being a colonial oppressor (or maybe necessitated by it) was a fair amateur anthropologist and wrote numerous scholarly articles and several books on the culture of the various indigenous peoples and his experiences in the wilds of New Guinea. While he seemed to have no special interest in supernatural phenomena, he recorded a few strange things, which he left in for the reader to contemplate. My personal favorite is his encounter with an invisible trespasser.
Mockton was borrowing the house of a man named Moreton, Resident Magistrate of the Eastern Division of New Guinea, at Samarai, busily engaged in writing his dispatches.
One night, in Moreton’s house, I had a curious and uncanny experience. I was sitting at the table, writing a long dispatch which engaged all my attention; my table was in the middle of the room, and on my right and left hand respectively there were two doors, one opening on to the front and the other on to the back veranda of the house; both doors were closed and fastened with ordinary wooden latches, which could not possibly open of their own accord as a spring lock might do; the floor of the room in which I was, was made of heavy teak-wood boards, nailed down; the floor of the veranda being constructed of lathes of palm, laced together with native string. As I wrote, I became conscious that both doors were wide open and—hardly thinking what I was doing-got up, closed them both and went on writing (Monckton, 1922, p109-111).
Monckton then clearly distinguished the sound of footsteps. This alone would not be enough to alarm a hardened military man like Monckton, who clearly felt his reports were more important and with single-minded focus returned to his work. Until it happened again.
This, however, occurred a second time; the footsteps first being heard on the walk, then on the veranda, and finally in the room in which he was writing. The steps seemed perfectly solid and natural, and it never occurred to Captain Monckton that they were in any sense supernormal. They squeaked on the palm-floored veranda and resounded on the boards in his room. This time they appeared to pass directly behind his chair. More alert to the situation, Captain Monckton looked up, and noted with surprise that the doors were again open — the doors he had closed but a few minutes before. This time he made sure that he shut them securely, nor could he see anything in the room or on the veranda to account for the footsteps. No one was visible (Carrington, 1954, p30-32).
Monckton, clearly of the “twice is coincidence, but three times is enemy action” school, was now concerned that he might have an intruder, as he was certain he had closed the door.
Some time later, once more the footsteps came, crash crash on the coral, squeak squeak on the veranda, again my door opened and the squeak changed to the tramp of booted feet on the boarded floor; as I looked to see who it was, the tramp passed close behind my chair and across the room to the door, which opened, then again the tramp changed to the squeak and the squeak to the crash on the coral…I was by this time getting very puzzled, but, after a little thought, decided my imagination was playing me tricks, and that I had not really closed the doors when I thought I had. I made certain, however, that I did close them this time and went on with my work again. Once more the whole thing was repeated, only this time I rose from the table, took my lamp in my hand, and gazed hard at the places on the floor from which the sound came, but could see nothing. Then I went on to the veranda and yelled for Giorgi and Poruma. “Who is playing tricks here?” I asked in a rage. Before Poruma could answer, again came the sound of footsteps through my room. “I did not know that you had any one with you,” said Poruma in surprise, as he heard the steps. “I have no one with me, but somebody keeps opening my door and walking about,” I replied, “and I want him caught.” “No one would dare come into the Government compound and play tricks on the R.M.,” said Poruma, “unless he were mad.” I was by this time thoroughly angry. “Giorgi, go to the guard-house, send up the gate-keeper and all the men there, then go to the gaol and send Manigugu (the gaoler) and all his warders; then send to the Siai [Captain Monckton’s ship] for her men; I mean to get to the bottom of all this fooling.” The gate-keeper arrived, and swore he had locked the gate at ten o’clock, that no other than Government people had passed through before that hour; that since then, until Giorgi went for him, he had been sitting on his veranda with some friends, and nobody could have passed without his knowledge. Then came the men from the gaol and the Siai, and I told them some scoundrel had been playing tricks upon me and I wanted him caught. First they searched the house, not a big job, as there were only three rooms furnished with spartan simplicity; that being completed, I placed four men with lanterns under the house, which was raised on piles about four feet from the ground: at the back and front and sides I stationed others, until it was impossible for a mouse to have entered or left that house unseen. Then again I searched the house myself; after which Poruma, Giorgi and I shut the doors of my room and sat inside. Exactly the same thing occurred once more; through that line of men came the footsteps, through my room in precisely the same manner came the tread of a heavily-booted man, then on to the palm veranda, where — in the now brilliant illumination — we could see the depression at the spots from which the sound came, as though a man were stepping there. “Well, what do you make of it?” I asked my men. “No man living could have passed unseen,” was the answer; “it’s either the spirit of a dead man or a devil.” “Spirit of dead man or devil, it’s all one to me,” I remarked; “if it’s taken a fancy to prance through my room, it can do so alone; shift my things off to the Siai for the night” (Monckton, 1922, p109-111).
Although nobody had yet invented movies, let alone the formula for getting oneself killed by the supernatural, Monckton wisely chose the course of action that in this modern age we wonder why the stars of horror movies don’t prudently take. Get out of Dodge. Or in the case of acid-spitting aliens, “dust off and nuke them from orbit”.
Whatever Captain Monckton may have thought (and he offers no opinion or explanation) he moved to the ship for the night and slept on board. Nothing of the sort ever happened again, and a year later the house was pulled down” (Carrington, 1954, p30-32).
Now, Monckton was a naturally curious fellow, so the next day he made some inquiries from his local informants, as well as his later discussing it with his landlord.
The following day, I sought out Armit. “Do you know anything about spooks?” I asked; “because something of that nature has taken a fancy to Moreton’s house.” “Moreton once or twice hinted at something of the sort,” said Armit, “but he would never speak out; I will come and spend to-night with you, and we will investigate.” Armit came, but nothing out of the ordinary occurred; nor did I ever hear of it afterwards, and before a year had elapsed the house had been pulled down. When Moreton returned, I related my experience to him, and he then told me that one night, when he was sleeping in his hammock, he was awakened by footsteps, such as I have described, and upon his calling out angrily to demand who was making the racket, his hammock was violently banged against the wall. “I didn’t care to say anything about it,” he said, “as I was alone at the time, and didn’t want to be laughed at” (Monckton, 1922, p109-111).
One must appreciate the finesse and theatricality of a spirit that makes a few uncanny (and invisible) appearances and refuses to do another show. I mean, that’s spectral class if ever I’ve heard of it. Perhaps, the heart of mystery resides in actually paying attention, for as Henry Miller once said, “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself”.
Carrington, Hereward, 1880-1959. Mysterious Psychic Phenomena: Unknown Worlds of Mystery and How They Are Being Explored. Boston: Christopher Pub. House, 1954.
Monckton, C.A.W. 1872-1936. Some Experiences of a New Guinea Resident Magistrate. 5th ed. London: John Lane, 1922.