19 October 2020
By Gregory Bablis
The impact of Papua New Guinea’s (PNGs) recent history of European contact is most tellingly conveyed in the place names, street names, and names of geographical and natural features in the country. From the Bismarck Sea and the numerous hafen’s (German for port or harbour) between the Morobe and Madang provinces, denoting 19th Century German influences, to the Autonomous Region of Bougainville and the D’Entrecasteaux Islands in Milne Bay Province indicating 18th Century French exploratory activities. Most secondary school students learning about the exploration and colonial history of Papua and New Guinea will be familiar with the name William MacGregor. He was appointed the first Administrator of British New Guinea (BNG) in 1888, serving the British Government as well as the Australian colonies who were worried about German activities in the northeastern half of the island of New Guinea at the time. BNG encompassed the Southern Region, from Northern (Oro) Province down to Milne Bay. But why the interest in a major proponent of colonialism and of British imperialism? He was a man of his time but also a man out of his time, as seen in some of his personal views and official policies in Papua. The measure of MacGregor’s significance might also be seen through the place names, exonyms, particularly in Port Moresby, that are now common linguistic currency when describing or giving directions within Port Moresby.
Let us first look at the name MacGregor, which is the Anglicised form of the Scottish Gaelic MacGriogair. The Gaelic name was originally a patronym, and means son of Griogar. The Gaelic personal name Griogar is a Gaelicised form of the name Gregory. The surname is used by members of the Scottish clan Clan Gregor, also known as Clan MacGregor, which is one of the largest clans in Scotland. MacGregor’s mother, Agnes Smith died on 4 July 1885 and his father, John MacGregor, died on 13 January 1890. William was the eldest son of Agnes and John MacGregor, who had other children of which not much is on record about but who are important to this story as will be seen at the end.
William MacGregor’s story ends where it started in 1846 when he was born on 20 October at Hillockhead Parish of Towie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The family was large and poor so William worked as a farm labourer. However, his intellectual promise was fostered by his schoolmaster, the minister and the local doctor. With their help and his own perseverance he entered Aberdeen Grammar School in April 1866 and enrolled at the University of Aberdeen in October the following year. Intending to enter the church he began arts but turned to medicine when his future wife Mary Thomson became pregnant. They were married on 4 October 1868 and their son was born the following January. MacGregor studied at Anderson’s Medical College (L.F.P.S.) and the Universities of Aberdeen (M.B.) and of Edinburgh (L.R.C.P.) and was registered on 9 May 1872. He became a medical assistant at the Royal Lunatic Asylum, Aberdeen, but left to join the colonial service as assistant medical officer in the Seychelles, probably attracted by the salary of £250. Between Seychelles and BNG, MacGregor worked for the next 16 years or so in the British colonies of Mauritius and Fiji in various capacities other than in his medical field of training.
41 years old in 1888, MacGregor was a middle-aged man and an experienced colonial administrator by the time he was appointed to the post in BNG, over 130 years ago now. MacGregor was inevitably and axiomatically a man of his times, even if certain aspects of his rule deserve the sobriquet of a man of all seasons. In 1888, as he saw it, the dominant problem for the ruler of New Guinea was to ensure consideration for the rights of Papuans. Nothing could seem more “modern”, when stated so baldly, yet MacGregor’s protective paternalism, his view of undesirable features of the culture of primitive peoples (or alternatively his conviction of the desirability and superiority of British achievements), were essentially views shaped by his time. After BNG, MacGregor would go on to become governor of Lagos (1898), governor of Newfoundland (1904) before being appointed the 11th governor of Queensland in 1909.
In PNG MacGregor’s contributions to the country can be seen in the names of places christened after him. Firstly, most police personnel will be familiar with MacGregor after whom the large police barracks at 9 Mile, Port Moresby, is named after. In 1890 MacGregor oversaw the creation of the Papuan Armed Constabulary, the first legally constituted police force. It had Papuan and New Guinean men as well as 14 foreign men – 2 Fijians and 12 Solomon Islanders from the Fijian police force – sent at the request of MacGregor.
Many older Papua New Guineans would know of MacGregor Street, also named after William MacGregor. On this street stood what was initially the Legislative Council from 1952, then the House of Assembly from 1964 and finally the National Parliament of PNG from 1975. Today the old building on MacGregor Street has been declared a historic site and is being looked after by the National Museum & Art Gallery (NMAG). The building has been renamed Haus Independens and houses a national exhibition titled Their Dreams, Our Future.
Visitors to the NMAG galleries at Waigani, beside National Parliament, will hear much of the MacGregor collections. During his tenure in BNG MacGregor surveyed much of the territory himself even scaling the heights of Mt Victoria, the highest peak in the Owen Stanley Range. On many of his expeditions, he collected items that would later on become the basis of a national collection that the NMAG continues to preserve and curate today.
So what of the long list of titles behind Sir William MacGregor’s name. Some of them will look familiar as titles seen behind Sir Michael Somare or Sir Paulus Matanes’ names. GCMG is an award for the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, both military saints. CB means Companion of The Most Honourable Order of the Bath. The AM is an award for Member of the Order of Australia. The PC title means that MacGegor was a Privy Counselor or member of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council which is a formal body of advisers to the Sovereign of the United Kingdom. In PNG today, apart from Sir Michael Somare, only Sir Julius Chan, Sir Rabbie Namaliu and Sir Mekere Morauta are Privy Counselor’s. The final title FRSGS is for a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and says something of his work in surveying territories and in collecting ethnographic items for preservation as he believed he was bearing witness to a fast disappearing society and way of life in BNG. Today items collected by MacGregor from PNG are spread over at least 3 countries, PNG, Australia and the UK. Other famous Fellows of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society include Sir Edmund Hillary, Neil Armstrong and Sir David Attenborough.
MacGregor’s story started where it ends, in the Scottish village of Towie, Aberdeenshire, where he is buried with his father and mother. Towie is a very small village that is about an hour drive out from Aberdeen International Airport. The lettering on the tombstone in the below photograph is faded from the cold and harsh elements of the Scottish highlands but it states at the end that it was erected by the surviving children of Agnes and John MacGregor. William MacGregors’ remains were cremated and scattered over his parent’s grave so there lies the three of them in perpetuity.
Wordings on tombstone:
THE BELOVED MEMORY
WHO DIED AT TILLYDRINE, KINCARDINE O’NEIL
13TH JANUARY 1890, AGED 72 YEARS
AND OF HIS WIFE
WHO DIED AT LEOCHEL-CUSHNIE
4TH JULY 1885, AGED 62 YEARS
ALSO OF THEIR SON
SIR WILLIAM MACGREGOR, P.C., C.C.M.G., C.B., A.M.,
WHO DIED AT ABERDEEN,
3RD JULY 1919, AGED 73 YEARS
ERECTED BY THEIR SURVIVING CHILDREN