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

by Ian Howie-Willis

Professor Hank Nelson, who died in the Clare Holland palliative care hospice, Canberra, on 17 February 2012, was a historian who spent four decades working at the Australian National University (ANU). The best-known historian of Papua New Guinea, Hank Nelson was a frequent public commentator on the history, politics and society of Australia's one-time largest overseas territory; however, his extensive published works covered military and educational history as well.
 
After training as a secondary teacher at the University of Melbourne in the late 1950s, Hank taught geography, history and English in government schools for three years, 1960–63. His last posting before taking up a lectureship in history and politics at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in 1963 was at Rosanna High School in outer north-eastern Melbourne. Before that, he had spent two years at the Numurkah High School in north-central Victoria.
 
Hank spent two years at RMIT, 1964–65, before moving in early 1966 to Port Moresby as a tutor at the recently established Administrative College. ‘AdColl’ was a government educational institution in the outer suburb of Six-Mile which aimed to accelerate the careers of promising young Papua New Guinean civil servants by pushing them through an intensive program of managerial training. Hank taught at ‘AdColl’ for two years, 1966–67, first at Six-Mile and then at Waigani. At AdColl his duties included helping establish a course in Papua New Guinean history at the adjacent University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG). The course proved so successful that the foundation professor of history at UPNG, Ken Inglis, recruited Hank as a member of his staff at the end of 1967. Like ‘AdColl’, UPNG was one of a series of tertiary training institutions hastily established by the Australian government during 1965 and 1966 to produce an indigenous Papua New Guinean educated elite before political independence was granted. Others were the Institute of Higher Technical Education near Lae, the Goroka Teachers’ College and the Vudal Agricultural College near Rabaul, all of which subsequently became universities.
 
These were exciting times to be a tertiary sector educator in Papua New Guinea. The new and prestigious tertiary training institutions did much to foment the process of rapid political change in Papua New Guinea which made independence possible in 1975. Ken Inglis's team of able and ambitious young historians was at the forefront of the intellectual vanguard leading the emergent nation towards its future. All of them excellent teachers, they created intense interest in the new field of Papua New Guinean history, which their department largely created and which helped foster a growing national consciousness. Hank quickly became the leading expert in this new field. He subsequently retained his eminence in the specialisation. His colleagues in the department included a series of outstanding historians who had or would later have ANU affiliations. As well as Ken Inglis, they included Peter Bolger, Donald Denoon, Bill Gammage, Alan Gilbert, Jim Griffin, Diane Langmore and Sione Latukefu.
 
Hyland Neil Nelson was from a farming family near Boort in the Mallee region of north-western Victoria. He was born in Boort on 21 October 1937, the younger son of John Hyland and Hilda Ellen Nelson. After schooling at the local primary and high schools, he passed the examinations for the Matriculation (Year 12) Certificate at the end of 1955 and then moved to Melbourne in early 1956 to become a student at the University of Melbourne. Supported by an Education Department studentship, he lived for three years in the St Kilda Road Hostel, a former mansion at no. 481 converted into a supervised boarding house which the department maintained to accommodate its secondary student teachers from country districts. In the final year of his studentship, he lived in the nearby Queen's Road Hostel, where he was appointed ‘Head Boy’. For students of Nelson's background, a trainee teacher's studentship and residence in a departmental hostel represented their only chance of a university education. Majoring in geography and history with a sub-major in English, Nelson graduated with a BA pass degree at the end of 1958 and completed the DipEd secondary teaching qualification the next year.
 
Having held a studentship, Nelson was bonded to the Education Department for three years after completing teacher training. That meant teaching at whatever government school to which the department might send him. He was assigned to the Numurkah High School in the Goulburn Valley region of north-central Victoria. In 1960, his first year of teaching, he married a fellow teacher, Janet Diane Pellas. They produced a family of two daughters and a son, and eventually there would be three grandchildren. While teaching, he also enrolled as an external part-time student in the postgraduate BEd coursework program at the University of Melbourne, which he completed in 1962.
 
After working out his bond, Nelson left Rosanna High School for a lectureship in history and politics at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) at the beginning of 1964. He and Jan had settled in Greensborough, the next suburb north-east of Rosanna. During the two years he lectured at RMIT he completed an MEd degree by thesis at his alma mater, the University of Melbourne. His thesis, titled ‘Early attempts to civilize the Aborigines of the Port Phillip District’, was his entrée into the world of the professional academic historian.
 
At RMIT, Nelson also permanently adopted his high school nickname ‘Hank’, by which he was soon universally known. Given its American origins, the name is somewhat ironic because, despite his decades in academia, he retained the broad Australian accent acquired through being Mallee born and bred. He also remained committed to the traditional Australian egalitarian values which were then uncommon in the patrician university history departments of the era. A product of the government school system, he might well have felt out of place among his private-school-educated colleagues; however, his professional achievements, absolute dedication to his profession, work ethic, personal and professional integrity, high moral and ethical standards, discretion, engaging personality, lively wit, magnanimity of spirit, generosity with his own time and loyalty to friends soon won over those from more privileged backgrounds who might otherwise have misjudged him. Few historians in Australia have ever been so widely liked and admired as Hank Nelson.
 
Even before arriving in Port Moresby in early 1966, Hank had begun producing the continuing prolific stream of journal articles, books, encyclopaedia entries, chapters in symposia and public comment that soon came to characterise his academic career. His first publication was an article in Historical Studies during his final year at RMIT. Derived from the research for his MEd thesis, it had the title ‘The missionaries and the Aborigines in the Port Phillip District’. During his first year in Port Moresby, he published two articles on the development of higher education in Papua New Guinea. These appeared in the two learned journals which then specialised in Papua New Guinea studies – the recently founded Port Moresby-based Journal of the Papua and New Guinea Society and New Guinea and Australia, the Pacific and South-East Asia, published in Sydney from 1965 by the journalist Peter Hastings for the Council on New Guinea Affairs. He also became the Port Moresby correspondent for Nation, an influential fortnightly news magazine published by the Sydney journalist Tom Fitzgerald.
 
In the following years, Hank's articles appeared in most of the prestigious Australian historical and literary journals, including Meanjin, Labor History, the Journal of Pacific History, Oral History, Overland, Australian Cultural History, the Australian Historical Association Bulletin, the Journal of Australian Studies and the Journal of the Australian War Memorial. He also produced 16 biographical profiles for the authoritative ANU-based Australian Dictionary of Biography. His diverse ADB contributions included the entries on the great pre-war governor of Papua, Sir Hubert Murray, and his famous brother Gilbert, who became the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford. Other notable contributions were those on Sir John Gunther, the inaugural UPNG vice-chancellor, and Ida Standley, the schoolteacher for whom Standley Chasm near Alice Springs is named.
 
During his first year at UPNG, 1968, Hank published his first book, A Short History of New Guinea, co-authored with Peter Biskup and Brian Jinks, colleagues at the Administrative College. It was a school textbook which, to the great relief of secondary school history teachers in Papua New Guinea, filled a large gap. They were obliged to teach the emerging nation's history but had few resources for doing so. Hank also developed and taught the UPNG course in Papua New Guinean history, the first of its kind in any university. Lacking textual materials and determined that the course should reflect Papua New Guinean perspectives, he turned to oral sources – largely his students’ own stories about topics such as the war, the pre-war mission schools and the indentured labour system.
 
The course opened up exciting new horizons for the many ‘national’ (i.e. indigenous) and also the expatriate (mainly Australian) students who flocked to enrol. The national students included Rabbie Namaliu, who went on to complete an MA degree in history at the University of British Columbia and later became prime minister of Papua New Guinea. Another was John Waiko, the first Papua New Guinean to graduate with a PhD degree in history from ANU and who later became the first national to hold the UPNG chair in history.
 
Hank also greatly encouraged the steady stream of postgraduate students, most of them Australians, who took advantage of the opportunities presented by UPNG to research and write MA theses on Papua New Guinean topics. Although I was lecturing in Lae at the Papua New Guinea Institute of Higher Technical Education (later the University of Technology), I was among the first of these and, even though Hank was not my supervisor, he gave me generous advice and support throughout the two years of my MA qualifying course and the three years I then took to produce my thesis part-time. He remained a mentor to me and, in the 40 years after I finished the degree, continued being a major influence on my development as a historian. Given his pioneering energy as a teacher, researcher and supporter of postgraduate students, no one could have been surprised when Hank was promoted to become UPNG's first senior lecturer in history.
 
Hank himself became one of the UPNG postgraduate students. He wrote his PhD thesis on the early history of mining in Papua New Guinea and the impact of the mining on indigenous communities. Probably among the best theses ever produced at UPNG, it was published by ANU Press in 1977 under the title Black, White and Gold: goldmining in Papua New Guinea 1878–1930. This was his fourth book. Five years earlier, in 1972, Penguin Books had published his second book, Papua New Guinea: Black Unity or Black Chaos?, an assessment of Papua New Guinea's rapid transition to self-government. (A revised edition was published in 1974 in the months leading to independence.) In 1973, he had teamed up again with Peter Biskup and Brian Jinks to produce his third book, Readings in New Guinea History, published by Angus and Robertson.
 
By the time Readings in New Guinea History appeared, Hank had relocated to Canberra. Following his seven highly productive, career-shaping years at Waigani, he took up a research fellowship in history in the Research School of Social Sciences at ANU at the beginning of 1973 to complete his PhD thesis. After two years in the position, he gained another research fellowship at ANU, this time in the Department of Pacific and Southeast Asian History within the Research School of Pacific Studies. It was in this department that he consolidated his reputation as one of the leading historians of the Pacific region. During his second year in the department, 1976, he was promoted to senior research fellow. In subsequent promotions, he became a fellow in Pacific and Southeast Asian history in 1976, senior fellow in 1981 and then professor in 1993. In 1994, the year after taking up his chair, he was elected a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. At his retirement in 2002, the year he turned 65, Hank was appointed as a professor emeritus of ANU. He also became a visiting fellow in the Division of Pacific and Asian History and chair of the State Society and Governance in Melanesia program. As such, his link with ANU continued in the decade after his retirement.
 
During Hank's four decades at ANU, his interests broadened to encompass military and educational history. Although he remained the great authority in Papua New Guinean history, the diversification of his interests became obvious in the titles of the books and journal articles he published. The books included Taim Bilong Masta: the Australian involvement with Papua New Guinea (1982 and 1990); POW: prisoners of war – Australians under Nippon (1985 and 2001); With Its Hat About Its Ears: recollections of the bush school (1989 and 1990); The Burma – Thailand Railway: memory and history (1993, edited with Gavan McCormack); Lines Across the Sea: colonial inheritance in the post colonial Pacific (1995, edited with Brij Lal); Report on Historical Sources on Australia and Japan at War in Papua and New Guinea (1998); ‘Chased by the Sun’: courageous Australians in bomber command in World War II (2002); ‘Fighting for Her Gates and Waterways’: changing perceptions of New Guinea in Australian defence (2005); The Pacific War in Papua New Guinea: memories and realities (2006, edited with Yukio Toyoda); Australian Prisoners of War 1941–1945: Australians in the Pacific War (2007); and The Chinese in Papua New Guinea (2007).
 
Unlike many of his colleagues in Australian university history departments, Hank steadfastly remained a classical liberal empirical historian. He refrained from taking up the paradigmatic enthusiasms of the passing decades, be these grounded in Marxism, Feminism, Post-Modernism, Anti-Imperialism, Cultural Studies and/or the later Genocide Studies. In any topic that engaged his interest, he researched the documentary resources systematically and thoroughly, conducted interviews to seek out oral sources and presented his findings in plain but carefully crafted, elegant prose. All his output was eminently readable, reflecting the experience of ordinary citizens. He wrote for a general audience rather than to impress his fellow historians. He aimed to communicate and educate, not to win the plaudits of the historiographical theoreticians.
 
As well as writing his books and articles, Hank became co-director of two one-hour-long documentary films on Papua New Guinea – Angels of War (1982) and Man Without Pigs (1990). The former dealt with villagers’ experiences of World War II, when the Japanese, Australian and US military forces fought over their lands. The latter investigated the conflicts faced by John Waiko, the Western-educated historian, in returning to his home village, where the traditional way of life continues.
 
Hank also collaborated with the broadcaster Tim Bowden in producing major Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) radio series on the pre-independence experiences of Papua New Guinea's European residents, the Australian prisoners of war of the Japanese and Australia's one-teacher rural schools. As well as the broadcasts, these series resulted in his books, Taim Bilong Masta, Australia Under Nippon and With its Hat About its Ears, each of which profitably used the oral history methods he had explored when developing his course at UPNG. In all, Hank was the principal adviser for no fewer than 46 radio documentary programs. In addition, he appeared frequently on ABC radio and television news and current affairs programs as an expert commentator on Papua New Guinean history and politics. His journalism included feature articles and book reviews for various major newspapers – the Age, the Australian, the Canberra Times, the National Times and the Sydney Morning Herald. For Hank, film, radio and journalism became an effective means for disseminating the results of his scholarly research. With the exception of Geoffrey Blainey (one of his PhD examiners) and Manning Clark, few Australian historians became as well known to the general public as Hank Nelson.
 
In addition to producing his published output, Hank always carried more than his fair share of the burden of academic administration. He served as a long-term member of the editorial boards of four learned journals – the Journal of the Papua and New Guinea Society (which he edited for two years), the Journal of Labour History, the Journal of Aboriginal History and the Journal of Pacific History. Through his committee work, he quickly developed into an accomplished senior manager at ANU. He served as head of department in Pacific and Southeast Asian History for various periods. He frequently acted as the director of the School of Pacific Studies. He served as the associate director of the Research School of Pacific Studies 1990–93 and of the Research School of Social Sciences in 1995. After the restructuring of the ANU research schools, he became the convenor of the Division of Pacific and Asian History. In addition, he periodically acted as the director of the Institute of Advanced Studies and as pro vice-chancellor. In June 2008, he was awarded membership in the Order of Australia – the AM. The citation stated that the award was ‘for service to tertiary education as an academic, researcher and political commentator on the contemporary history of Papua New Guinea’.
 
Hank's many ANU and other scholarly involvements only lessened after his melanoma was diagnosed in mid-2008. He remained active, but successive sessions of surgery and chemotherapy progressively slowed his activity from a gallop to a canter and eventually a trot. One of his last major public appearances was at St Christopher's Cathedral, Manuka, in May 2010 to deliver the principal eulogy at the funeral of his close friend and colleague Professor Jim Griffin. Despite being ill as a result of his current course of chemotherapy, Hank made a brave effort to be present. His speech was so characteristically warm, generous, witty and eloquent that no one except those who knew of his recent medical history would have guessed that he was seriously ill.
 
Even when ill and ageing, Hank retained his boyish good looks. Standing 6 feet (183 centimetres) tall, with grey-blue eyes and a shock of fair hair worn at medium length, he also remained trim and lean. Abstemious in personal habits, he was never either a smoker or drinker. A sports lover and able sportsman himself, he could discuss all sports authoritatively, especially those he grew up playing in the Mallee – cricket, Australian football and basketball. On the squash court he was a formidable opponent, his fierce determination and well-polished skills being of a kind with his historical research and writing. During his 50s and early 60s he wore a heavy, drooping moustache and, in the years he wore it, he disconcertingly resembled the poet Henry Lawson, whom he admired. Visiting overseas academics who met him for the first time at ANU might have been surprised by his informal, unobtrusive and unassuming manner. He customarily wore casual slacks, an open-necked shirt and pullover, whereas they might have expected the tweed jacket, knitted tie and sententious pronouncements favoured by prominent academic historians elsewhere. After several minutes’ conversation, they could not mistake his quiet air of authority and mastery of his discipline.
 
Hank Nelson was singularly blessed by his choice of life partner. His wife Jan loyally and diligently supported him in all his endeavours. The Nelson family homemaker, she created a stable, happy domestic life in their house in Kaleen that was the envy of colleagues maritally less fortunate. Without Jan and his happy domestic arrangements, Hank might still have enjoyed an outstandingly successful academic career, but it could hardly have been as fulfilling as the one made possible by Jan.
 
I will conclude this tribute to Hank Nelson on a personal note because our dealings with each other over many years say much about his qualities as a friend and colleague. We were almost exactly the same age, born within two months of each other. We both arrived at the University of Melbourne on Education Department studentships in 1956 to undertake pass BA degrees in English and history. We must have attended many lectures together, but I did not meet him until September 1967. I was then a history teacher at a high school on the far north coast of Papua New Guinea, outside Wewak in the Sepik District. He was concluding his two-year appointment at the Administrative College in Port Moresby on the other side of the island. He was among the team of historians that Ken Inglis brought from UPNG to help run an in-service course for secondary history teachers which the Education Department was conducting at the Goroka Teachers’ College. Hank and I immediately liked each other and would remain good friends throughout the following 45 years.
 
Hank Nelson, the historian from Boort, realised early that, where he had climbed, others could follow. Among many other talents, he could recognise latent promise among students with an abiding interest in history. His warm encouragement to go where he had led was among his most endearing characteristics. I certainly owe my historian's career to Hank and his example, but I am only one of many practising historians who will feel similarly obliged to Boort's most famous son – our generous friend, Hyland Neil Nelson, whom we all knew best as just plain Hank.
 
Hank is survived by Jan, his wife of 52 years, their three children, Tanya, Lauren and Michael, and their three grandchildren, Rachel, Jack and Eliza. To them and the members of their extended family I express my profound sorrow. In their grief, perhaps it will be reassuring to know that Hank will live on in the affections of the many grateful colleagues and friends whose lives he touched and brightened. His reputation will also survive in the corpus of his published work, which will remain an important source for Pacific historians for decades to come.

Original Publication

  • Journal of Pacific History, vol 47, no 2, 2012, pp 227-32

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Additional Resources

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Citation details

Ian Howie-Willis, 'Nelson, Hyland Neil (Hank) (1937–2012)', Pacific Islander Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://pib.anu.edu.au/biography/nelson-hyland-neil-hank-15985/text27233, accessed 27 May 2017.

© Copyright Pacific Islander Biography, 2012