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NFSA Stories: 1920s Papua New Guinea

NFSA Stories: Frank Hurley's Pearls and Savages

Exploration with Frank Hurley
 Amanda Diaz

For passionate family history researcher Lynette Ainsworth, a visit to the NFSA gave her the chance to learn more about the adventures of her great uncle in the early 1920s.

Eureka engineer

Born in 1900, Robert Richmond Bell – known as ‘Rick’ to his family and friends – left his home state of Queensland for life in Papua New Guinea at just 20 years of age. It was there he joined the crew of photographer and adventurer Frank Hurley, on his expedition up the Fly River. Rick worked as an engineer on Hurley’s boat, the Eureka, and travelled with the explorer to Lake Murray as part of the first expedition of white explorers to the area.

Through reading old newspaper articles on Trove and examining memorabilia kept by Rick’s family, Lynette learned of Rick's involvement in the Fly River expedition and also about Frank Hurley's book on the subject, Pearls and Savages: Adventures in the Air, on Land and Sea in New Guinea (1924). Searching for the book led Lynette to learn of the existence of a documentary, Pearls and Savages (c1921), which in turn brought her to the NFSA.

First Planes to Papua

Lynette learned of the film shortly after reuniting with Rick’s daughter, Judy Dorling, her first cousin once removed. Reconnecting with Judy inspired Lynette to learn more about her great uncle and his adventures. 'I don’t only look for names, dates and places,' said Lynette of her love of family history, 'I want to know the story behind our family members.'

With Judy and her husband Rob, they travelled to the NFSA Sydney Access Centre in Pyrmont to watch the film together.

The 1921 silent film was reconstructed by the NFSA in 1979. It was this version of the film that Lynette was able to watch at the NFSA.

Excerpt from Pearls and Savages, c1921. NFSA title: 6810

'Seeing the film had far more impact than reading about it,' says Lynette. 'It is one thing to read of the remoteness of the area explored, but to see the villages, people and artefacts on screen was something else. It brought everything to life for us.'

Knowing of Rick’s involvement in the trip depicted in the documentary made the screening an emotional experience. Lynette admits that a few tears were shed.

'To witness the expedition on film and think a member of our family was a part of this history was extraordinary,' she says. 

From Eureka to Kokoda

Rick went on to have a fascinating life in Papua New Guinea beyond his travels on the Eureka. He ran a business which offered car trips out of Port Moresby to Sapphire Creek and the Indigenous villages of Hanuabada and Koki.

During the Second World War he served as part of the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit on the Kokoda Track, alongside the Papua New Guinean war carriers known as the 'Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels'.

Rick then worked as a gold miner and even managed a coffee plantation at Mt Hagen before returning to Australia in 1964, where he passed away in 1973.

'The fact that the NFSA preserves stories such as the one of my great uncle is so important,' says Lynette. 'Not just in the historical sense, but also for people like Judy and me who have a particular family interest and want to learn more by having access to historical image and sound.'


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We will publish more NFSA Stories here on the first Monday of every second month.