‘Papua’s “First Prime Minister” and the “Queen of New Guineans”: How women appeared within the London Missionary Society archives from Papua, during 1874 to 1898.’

The following is a presentation script for ‘Papua’s “First Prime Minister” and the “Queen of New Guineans”: How women appeared within the London Missionary Society archives from Papua, during 1874 to 1898,’ which was given at In Their Own Words a bi-annual conference for the Pacific History Association 17-20 November 2021.

Geua was a successful trader and negotiator within the Motuan village of Hanuabada. When the Cook Islanders of the London Missionary Society landed in Redscar Bay in 1872, Geua travelled and established a long-term reciprocal relationship with them and negotiated their relocation to Port Moresby.[1] In 1873, Geua experienced the benefits of new arrivals as non-Papuan traders and explorers distributed highly valued trade items such as rice, tobacco, and beads to the village. [2] When the mission vessel the John Williams pulled into the harbour near her village in the December of 1874, it was an opportunity for Geua to pursue another profitable encounter.

On the deck of the John Williams was Fanny Lawes. A thirty-five-year-old woman and an experienced lay missionary with the LMS. Fan brought with her thirteen years of experience and knowledge gained from living on Niue while working for the LMS mission. With her newborn son, Percy, her toddler, Charlie, and husband George no doubt nearby on the ship’s deck, she entered this space also as a mother and wife. The first task she likely set herself was making connections with locals to gain shelter from the unpredictable tropical weather. Only then would she set about delivering the Gospel.

Both Geua and Fan were involved with the establishment of the LMS in Port Moresby, however, widespread recognition and analysis of their experiences has been hindered by the dominance of texts produced by male missionaries, such as George Lawes and James Chalmers. George especially was devoted to documenting the progress of the LMS and his interactions with the people he encountered. He provided the LMS Foreign Office with long-form letter updates, travel journals and photographs. From 1882, George’s LMS archive included folders formal reports and letters to the Juvenile Missionary Magazine.

As these texts were produced by George’s hand and refracted through his mind, they centralise his experience as a missionary during the late nineteenth century in the Pacific. His works are a sample of the dominant masculine discourse found in the LMS archive – a site that reflects the struggles to acknowledge and represent women in politically powerful roles. Indeed, George’s papers became the basis for the Rev. Joseph King’s hagiographic biography W. G. Lawes of Savage Island and New Guinea (1909). 

How then do we read the archives to produce a more inclusive history? Adhering to the arguments of gender historian Anne Dickson-Waiko, I read these archives against the grain to locate the experiences of ‘hidden women’- women who were ‘overlooked both physically and intellectually’ by Imperial and Western people and institutions.[3] This presentation focuses on illuminating two women active in the LMS mission from 1872 to 1898- the Motuan leader Geua and the lay missionary, Fan Lawes. There are a few letters in the archive from Fan and a smattering of photographs that show Geua. By revisiting LMS archival documents created by George, James Chalmers, Rev. Joseph King and J.W. Lindt at this time- and juxtaposing them with other publications from that period- I seek to produce a different Pacific history. One that contests the common perception of men, European and South Sea Islanders, were primary political actors in the LMS spaces. I detail here Fan’s designation as the ‘Queen of New Guineans’ and Geua’s characterisation as ‘Papua’s First Prime Minister’. I conclude that although obscured in the archives, women were highly active political agents within the LMS.

The LMS Comes to Port Moresby

Geua initially encountered representatives from the LMS at Manumanu, Redscar Bay, in 1872. That year, the European missionaries, Archibald W. Murray and William Wyatt Gill had landed on the shoreline a dozen Cook Islanders, six pastors and their wives. It seems Geua was intrigued by news of their arrival. In the company of her sixteen-month-old son, Geua walked from her home at Hanuabada the 76 kilometres along the coastline. Her travels would have been relatively routine. It is likely she knew the region from previous journeys to trade for food.[4] When Geua, whom missionary James Chalmers later described as ‘a smart, kindly woman’ arrived at Manumanu, she interacted with the missionaries.[5] As she gathered firewood and fetched water for the group, she took the opportunity to rebuke the Cook Islanders. Chalmers recounted Geua, telling the missionary group, they were ‘in the wrong place. Come to Hanuabada, the largest of all villages on this part of the coast. It is my village and the centre of this tribe. We are one. Come and see’.[6] Geua’s community were revered for their seafaring and pottery skills.[7] They existed in association with the equally as industrious Koitabu.[8] Geua’s command came when the resolve of the Cook Islanders to establish themselves at Manumanu was severely tested. By 1873 persistent illness and numerous deaths at this site had drastically decreased the number of active LMS representatives.[9] Near Hanuabada was Port Moresby a site well known to Europeans since Captain John Moresby, had visited. Here, the missionaries could recover their health and persist with delivering the Gospel. When the Cook Islanders relocated to Port Moresby, Geua returned to her village.[10]


A year later, at 5 am on the first day of December a new social and cultural element was introduced to the community. To support the mission endeavour established by Cook Islanders the previous year and needing a change of environment after thirteen years working on the remote mission in Niue, the missionary couple Fan Lawes and her husband George, along with their young sons Charley and Percy arrived at Port Moresby. After two days on shore, the crew of the John Williams had built the Lawes family a shanty. Positioned on the hills between Hanuabada and Elevala, the wood and tin shelter had them ‘as comfortable and safe as possible’.[11] This shanty soon became a communication hub for the missionaries and the Motuans. George relayed to the LMS Executive office in a letter that the family’s quick integration into local village life appeared to be in response to Fan’s presence. The local community’s preference for Fan and Charley’s company ensured calls for ‘Misi Haine’ [Mrs Lawes] and ‘Siale’ [Charley] were commonplace across the mission site.[12]

Having demonstrated a propensity for integrative actions, Geua was likely one of the attendees at the Lawes’ shanty. As the Lawes’ undertook the complex process of adapting to life in Port Moresby, it seemed they quickly recognised the value of there being a knowledgeable woman such as Geua nearby. George documented Geua’s industrious nature for the impressionable Juvenile Missionary Magazine audience (1882). In one article, he details how their relationship was established and maintained. Geua offered physical help to gain favour with the missionaries. George described these engagements as a series of wants and fulfillments ‘[i]f we wanted firewood or water she was always ready to fetch it.’[13] The internal correspondence written by George to the LMS Foreign Secretary demonstrated a more contentious relationship between the Lawes and Geua, especially regarding the problematic issue of a mutually agreeable service payment.  George acknowledged Geua required payment for her labour, but he also felt he should be the one to set the payment terms; however, Geua, a big woman within her community, believed she should set the terms of payment. Consequently, a battle of wills was documented. George would declare Geua required ‘constant watching…[as] she used to help herself to whatever she could lay her hands on’ in return for her labour.[14] While we do not know for sure the outcome of this tussle of wills, Geua’s actions indicated she was a woman who was used to her skills being acknowledged.  

The Queen and her Prime Minister

From 1883 to 1885, the social and cultural capital Geua and Fan had gained through everyday mission interactions was increasingly framed by colonial ambitions. New Guinea’s value to the Australian colonies during the late nineteenth century is a complex issue. The colonists, especially those in Queensland, acknowledged the geography of their closest neighbour as a ‘fertile [landscape], rich in minerals, rich in wide and deep rivers and harbours.’[15] As people arrived at New Guinea from Asia, Europe and America, during the 1880s, ambitious white Australian colonists felt threatened. Fears that Germany was claiming New Guinea for its Empire led Queensland settlers to colonise Papua.[16] These political ambitions manifested in a series of flag-raising ceremonies by British representatives in the region from 1883 to 1884.  Rev. King, the Lawes’ friend, who also happened to be the organising agent for the LMS’ Australasian missionaries, provided a detailed description of the annexation ceremony led by Thursday Island Magistrate H.E. Chester on 4 April 1883 for the south-eastern sections of New Guinea.

Here, King explained, Fan was designated to the attendees as the ‘Queen of the New Guineans.’[17] This exceptional representation was in consequence of Fan’s management of the nearby mission site. Fan was a woman who learned local languages, undertook expeditions along the coast and into the interior of Papua, taught European domestic skills and reading and writing to locals. King collapsed these multiple roles by describing Fan, as a ‘respected missionary’s lady’, having a ‘heart for the work, a head to understand the natives and manage them, and hands always ready for use, no matter what kind of work comes forward.’[18] Fan’s designation as a Queen interlinked the political agency of the missionaries with the eastern Australian colonial government’s ambitions for annexation.

The attribution of Queenly status was also somewhat mocking. This verbal crowning as Queen was tainted by the contemporary notion that women were inherently incapable of being political leaders.[19] As a female monarch, Queen Victoria was characterised as exhibiting the ‘weakness of woman’ with a ‘reputation for charity, concern, and virtue’.[20] To be a British Queen was to be a patriotic symbol and an example of benevolent maternalism. It was a gendered role that carried with it a ‘domestic ideal: a perfect wife, a perfect mother, a perfect lady.’[21] In this way, a Queen’s function was to be the epitome of a moral yet passive woman rather than an influential political leader.[22] So when King referenced this identity claim, he recognised Fan’s political power in the region, yet he utilised Fan as a symbol to support the expansion of the British Empire.


Two years after Fan was named Queen, Geua also appeared in the historic record as a political symbol for the British Empire. In 1885, Fan introduced Geua to visiting explorers as her ‘Prime Minister’.[23] Geua charmed the photographer J. W. Lindt while she oversaw a majority of social interactions at the mission house. In his book, Picturesque New Guinea (1887), he did not include a photograph of Geua, however, he did write that she possessed ‘a wonderful amount of tact and firmness.’[24] This assessment likely came from Geua’s ability to negotiate with mission visitors to obtain her desired outcome. Lindt explained Geua’s significance in the mission arose from her provision of ‘valuable aid and assistance’ without which ‘the good lady [Fan] would not manage…very well.’[25] Lindt’s comment indicated Fan’s relied on Geua to function successfully in this foreign place. The bestowal of this British political title also illuminated the complexity of the relationship between Fan and Geua. On one level, it indicated Fan’s assumption of nineteenth-century racial and class hierarchies. When Fan named Geua as the ‘Prime Minister of Papua’, she positioned Geua as her subject; however, the title of ‘Prime Minister’ also indicated that Fan recognised that Geua devoted a significant proportion of her time fostering and maintaining foreign trade and political connections.

Considering Geua’s permanent presence at the mission house in association with the cultural traditions of her community, it was likely she partook in a long-standing Motuan practice of integrating oneself into surrounding societies to ensure the success of her clan. Motuans were renowned for consciously adopting ‘cultural traits which…[they] deemed expedient and desirable,’ to support their integration plans.[26] The behaviour associated with these relationships was predicated on the traditional foundations of village residential groups. These groups were often, but not always, patrilineal and named iduhu, a term that has been controversially translated as ‘clan’.[27] Geua utilised this Papuan role to gain cultural capital and excel at connecting and maintaining relationships between Imperial forces, Cook Islanders, and Motuan kinship groups. As Geua accumulated political relationships with the missionaries, she demonstrated to other lohia (leaders) her superior management skills. When a big woman such as Geua sourced a significant yield through trade with missionaries and their associates the clan benefited.


This presentation has focused on the presence of two women, Geua and Fan Lawes, in the LMS archives and historic documents concerning the annexation of New Guinea. Examining longform letters and photographs in association with popular publications illuminated these ‘hidden women’ as active political individuals. I have shown that Geua and Fan were individuals crucial to the settlement of the LMS in the region, and politically powerful; however, the masculine institution of the LMS struggled to accurately, and consistently, represent these women. The presence of Fan in the official LMS mission biographies and long-form letters indicates how a restrictive framing, founded on domestic sphere representation obscured her political work undertaken in the mission field. Likewise, Geua, as an Indigenous woman with strong social connections and ambitions, was also represented by George and Lindt as a sensational subject, which hid the serious nature of her political negotiations as a big woman. This discursive examination of the LMS archives has started the process of revealing how the structures of mission archival collections work in a confounding manner, both hiding and preserving the words of women.

[1] J. Chalmers, Pioneering in New Guinea, London, (London, Religious Tract Society, 1887), 146.

[2] W.G. Lawes, ‘7 to 30 December 1874’ [Papua correspondence folder to LMS Foreign Secretary], Australian Joint Copying Project, National Library of Australia,  Miscellaneous Series 91.

[3] A Dickson-Waiko, ‘Finding Women in Colonial Papua: Gender, Race, and Sex in Papua New Guinea History’, South Pacific Journal of Philosophy and Culture, vol. 10, (2010), 12.

[4] J. William, ‘Some religious aspects of the hiri’, The Hiri in History, T.E. Dutton (ed), (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1982), 62.

[5] This book was primarily an edited volume of his long-form letters to the LMS Foreign Secretary; J. Chalmers, Pioneering in New Guinea, London, (London, Religious Tract Society, 1887), 146.

[6] ibid.

[7] M. Groves, ‘Motu Pottery’, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 69, (1960), 2 <http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document/?wid=3053&gt;.

[8] ibid.

[9] C. Horne, The Story of the LMS, Second, (London, London Missionary Society, 1908), pp. 400–401.

[10] ibid, 146–147.

[11] W.G. Lawes, ‘7 to 30 December 1874’ [Papua correspondence folder to LMS Foreign Secretary], Australian Joint Copying Project, National Library of Australia, Miscellaneous Series 91.

[12] J. King, W. G. Lawes of Savage Island and New Guinea, (London, Religious Tract Society, 1909), 70.

[13] W.G. Lawes, ‘New Guinea Portrait Gallery’, Juvenille Missionary Magazine, London, 1882.

[14] W.G. Lawes, 1881 [Papua correspondence]National Library of Australia, Australian Joint Copying Project, Miscellaneous Series Reel 92.

[15] Clarke, ‘Annexation of New Guinea [Letter to the Editor]’, The Age, 5 April 1878, in Trove [online database], accessed 9 March 2018.

[16] T.E. Dutton, Police Motu: Iena Sivarai (its Story), (University of Papua New Guinea Press, Port Moresby, 1985), pp. 43–45.

[17] J. King, W. G. Lawes of Savage Island and New Guinea, (London, Religious Tract Society, 1909), 205.

[18] J. King, King, W. G. Lawes of Savage Island and New Guinea, (London, Religious Tract Society, 1909), 78.

[19] A History of Their Own, B Anderson & J. Zinsser (eds), Second edition, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2000), 143.

[20] Sarah Carter and Maria Nugent, Mistress of Everything: Queen Victoria in Indigenous worlds, S Carter & M Nugent (eds), (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2016), 5.

[21] Anderson & Zinsser, A History of Their Own, (London, Oxford University Press, 2000), 165.

[22] Anderson & Zinsser, A History of Their Own, (London, Oxford University Press, 2000), 165.

[23] J.W. Lindt, Picturesque New Guinea, (London, Longmans, Green & Co., 1887), 79.

[24] J.W. Lindt, Picturesque New Guinea, (London, Longmans, Green & Co., 1887), 79.

[25] J.W. Lindt, Picturesque New Guinea, (London, Longmans, Green & Co., 1887), 79.

[26] J.W. Lindt, Picturesque New Guinea, (London, Longmans, Green & Co., 1887), 79, p.7

[27] M. Goddard, ‘Historicizing Edai Siabo: a Contemporary Argument about the Pre-colonial Past among the Motu-Koita of Papua New Guinea’, Oceania, vol. 81, (2011), 285, <https://www.jstor.org/stable/23209535&gt;.