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Nelson, Hyland Neil (Hank) (1937–2012)

by Jon Fraenkel, Stewart Firth and Bryant Allen

from State, Society & Governance in Melanesia website, Australian National University

Professor Hank Nelson of the Australian National University died in Canberra on Friday 17th February after a long battle with cancer. His was a life focussed on both Papua New Guinea and Australia, and it was the relationship between the two that nourished his intellect. His books, including Black, White and Gold: Goldmining in Papua New Guinea, 1878-1930 and Taim Bilong Masta: the Australian involvement with Papua New Guinea, established for him a reputation as the foremost historian of Papua New Guinea. His work on Australian involvement in the Pacific War and the impact of that war on the peoples of Papua New Guinea drew upon and refined his skills in oral history, as with the 1982 documentary Angels of War, which won awards both from the Australian Film Institute and at the Nyon Film Festival in Switzerland. That work led to his involvement in the preparation of displays and sound archives of the Australian War Memorial. Hank Nelson wanted history to serve a broader purpose, and he wrote not just for his colleagues or his profession but for a wider public. His three books published by the ABC and the associated radio series exemplified this approach, above all Taim Bilong Masta: The Australian Involvement with Papua New Guinea, ABC, 1982, which told the story in large part through people’s reminiscences.

Hank (Hyland Neil) Nelson was born on October 21st 1937 in Boort, country Victoria. His parents, Hyland and Hilda, were farmers and his brother John and two younger generations still work the same farm. Hank was educated at Boort Higher Elementary School, Kerang High School and then the University of Melbourne. He first became a school teacher at Numurkah and then Rosanna High Schools before being appointed as a lecturer at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in 1964. Then commenced what was to prove a life-long association with Papua New Guinea. Hank was appointed to the Administrative College in Port Moresby in 1966, and in 1968 moved to the new University of Papua New Guinea. That university had still to be built, and when he arrived he taught students in the preliminary year in sheds at the showground with his characteristic blend of straightforwardness, imagination and high expectations. His students in the late 1960s were to become Papua New Guinea’s first governing elite. One of them was Charles Lepani, now PNG High Commissioner to Australia.

Hank was appointed to The Australian National University (ANU) in 1973. He once joked that Australians were such a rarity in the ranks of historians at ANU that his position had to be due to affirmative action. That was typical humility. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was a splendid historian, equally at home with the detail of Papua New Guinea’s history and with theories of political power or the dynamics of group identity. He was proud of his rural origins and drew upon them in With Its Hat About Its Ears: Recollections of the Bush School. And his interest in the experiences of those at war inspired his book Prisoners of War: Australians Under Nippon. His background was the foundation of his research, and it helps to explain his concern for the place of the common people in history. He was a firm empiricist, but one who happily engaged with global themes, such as Francis Fukuyama’s perspectives on state-building or Paul Collier’s analysis of the causes of poverty amongst the ‘bottom billion’.

In recent years, as Chair of the ANU’s State, Society & Governance in Melanesia Program, he was always on the lookout for seemingly small incidents that gave a window through which to look at wider trends, and that would reveal something about how political power worked in Melanesia – letters to the newspapers, for example, which he used as a way of understanding the frustrations and hopes of ordinary Papua New Guineans in a country where government has delivered much less than promised at independence. He had no time for sloppy or badly-conceived work but was the first to praise first-rate work, generous to colleagues in a profession where generosity is often missing. For that reason he served as a solid mentor for younger scholars at ANU, and an inspiration to fellow senior colleagues. A lively strain of common decency also made Hank a much-liked colleague and friend.

Hank became a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and a Member of the Order of Australia. He kept writing until close to the end, with a series of articles for Inside Story about the crises of the Somare government in PNG, a paper on ‘Comfort women’ in wartime Rabaul, and another on the perils of labelling states as having ‘failed’ in the Pacific. He was a firm advocate of straight talking and solid prose, with no fluff around the edges. He was possessed with a great sense of the urgency of scholarly research in Melanesia, and of how much still needed to be done. It is a tribute to Professor Nelson that he contributed so much of what has been done. He is survived by his wife Janet, his children Tanya, Lauren and Michael and his grandchildren Rachel, Jack and Eliza.

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Citation details

Jon Fraenkel, Stewart Firth and Bryant Allen, 'Nelson, Hyland Neil (Hank) (1937–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 August 2022.

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