Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Rereading the History of Papua New Guinea


This blog entry was prompted by Malum Nalu's blog post about Australia's first World War I battle, which took place on the Gazelle Peninsular in September 1914.

That article prompted me to think about how we as Papua New Guineans should perceive our own history.

Papua New Guinea today is struggling with many issues that trouble its nationhood. Some issues like corruption at the highest levels of its administration are real and the people must insist on the addressing of these matters.

On top of that our country seems to be hassled and haunted from all sides by a plethora of demands from visitors, residents, service users, corporate investors and exploiters, and from our own citizens about the state of Papua New Guinea's infrastructure, health and social services, law and order and security issues and amenities. Most of these demands regarding the performance of our country are real and the country should find a systematic method towards some solutions and establish the kind of sustainable practices that keep addressing the long list of existing and emerging issues.

But there are some disempowering and unsettling ideas that are baseless, like the common allegation that somewhere in its history, Papua New Guinea has become so mismanaged that it has failed the "Pax Australiana". This alleged failure to uphold the so called "Pax Australiana" is constantly echoed by many members of the expatriate community and in recent times even by some Papua New Guineans themselves. What exactly was the Pax Australiana? What was its philosophy? What were its programmes and how come it was not there as a founding document that the founding fathers of our nation could have used as part of the architecture of the modern Papua New Guinea?

Melanesian Ideals and War Memorials:

Should the modern Papua New Guinea be celebrating war like our Australian friends after what we have done on Bougainville?

What do we feel now as a Melanesian people of Papua New Guinea and what do we think about our part in modern war history? 

The modern culture of Australia seems a little preoccupied at the moment with war history, war memorials and war heroes. But there are some troubles that follow war around and which may enter our region like the present refugee problem that Australia is facing.

On the refugee problem, it seems acceptable to most of our citizens that we would support and be helpful to Australia with these emerging problems. We know that the Manus Province has always offered to help. But at the same time, how should Papua New Guinea itself come to terms with the situation of the refugees as a humanitarian issue? How does Papua New Guinea take on the problem of helping Australia deal with the refugee problem according to the moral and ethical senses we feel as Melanesian people? It is these kinds of questions and reflections that if faced and processed together as a nation of people may help the modern Papua New Guinea become better aware of itself as a thinking organisation.

Fallen Soldiers

Amongst the "about" 30 natives killed in that WWI battle in September 1914, when the Australians attacked the Gazelle Peninsular, were Tolai men, members of the German civilian police force in the thriving German New Guinea.

It seems that these were the second lot of Papua New Guineans to fall in war during an international conflict.

The first Papua New Guineans to fall as soldiers in an international conflict seem to have fallen earlier, in German Africa in the late 1800s, before any of the world wars. There are some very thin threads as leads to that story which could be an interesting little chapter of our history. But these stories need better verification as to the part any natives from German New Guinea played in Germany's colonial history.

Part of the search for our own Papua New Guinean boys, lost on foreign soil may lead us to some German graves in German pre World Wars Africa, where our boys may be buried. 

But were our fallen boys buried properly when they fell in Africa? Considering the 1800s history, and the perceptions of the humanity of the black races and the slavery of black people at the time, this is probably not the case.

This was the period towards the end of the era of slavery in Africa, where the Germans as late comers to empire building appeared more enthusiastic about slavery than the traditional empire builders of the time.

But what were our boys doing in German Africa? German East Africa includes what is now Burundi, Rwanda and Tanganyika (the mainland part of present Tanzania). 

The Defeated Army of the New Guinea Islands.

Part of the German Native Constabulary based on Gazelle Peninsular

Part of the German Native Constabulary that was based in Kieta,
German Solomons, now Bougainville.

A Snapshot of German New Guinea

At the time of the Australian take over, the capital of German New Guinea Rabaul:

... "was not so much a town as a tropical garden, dotted about with government offices, business premises, and bugalows. The avenues were carefully laid out and planted with poinciana and casuarina trees, the later creating the feeling, as one visitor many years later was to describe it, of looking down the nave of a cathedral half a mile long (Bertie, 1937: 46)." 
-from the book "Matupit" by A. L Epstein.

The Australian expropriation of German New Guinea and the new problems that the locals faced dealing with their new colonial masters were presented favourably to the public back in Australia. The military victory and take over in New Britain and Bougainville (German Solomons) was depicted in a cartoon in an Australian newspaper in December of 1914. 

Notice that the native soldier is already wearing a Digger hat and in the cartoon's caption, he is referred to in the derogatory term of "The Black-Birds". At this time, Pacific Islanders were still working as slaves in the sugar cane fields of Queensland. Some 55,000 to 62,500 South Sea Islanders were taken to Australia as slaves during the Black-Birding days.

Note: Readers may wish to pursue the history of the expropriation of German New Guinea for themselves. Some micro nationalist and "break-away" movements followed that chapter including the rise of the Mungkas Assosciation on Bougainville and the rise of the Mataungan Association on the Gazelle Peninsular.

Things seemed to have gone downhill for German New Guinea from then on.

Epstein found that there was a perceived deterioration of the administration and state of the former German colony.

"The Australian Military Occupation, which lasted until 1921, brought few changes to the area in the way of Administrative policy or economic organisation. The administration was, from its very nature, a caretaker administration, whose main concern became to maintain and increase the value of already existing European economic enterprises in the hope that victory would place them under Australian control (Rowley, 1958: 47)."

"Despite the many signs of neglect, Rabaul remained physically very much as the Germans had left it".

Epstein quotes an interesting letter printed in the Rabaul Times from a Rabaul resident:

"Why has the Botanic Gardens been neglected? ... It is to be hoped that some effort will be made at least to restore them to what they were when Germany lost Rabaul (Rabaul Times, 26.10.1928)".

Law and Order

It seems that the first thing that preoccupied the Australians when they took over was the now famous: "Law and Order Problem".


"It was however, the 'native question', or the 'Black Peril' as it was sometimes called locally, which appears to have preoccupied many of the white residents of Rabaul at this time. Frequent complaints were made about official laxity in administering the laws that purported to control native movements and behaviour, and a contrast was drawn between the contemporary 'disregard of all control and authority, the laziness and insolence, an even open scorn displayed' by the natives towards their white masters and the 'ingrained respect and obedience shown to their previous controllers' under the German régime. (Rabaul Times, 3.7.1925)."

The Australian frustration with their own lack of control, could be manifested on two fronts. On one front, there seemed to be the need to humiliate the former German colonial masters in front of the natives, seemingly to show everyone who the real masters were. On the other front they needed to command the obedience if not the respect and admiration of the natives.

To do that, Germans who broke the law under the new Australian administration were caned in public in front of assembled natives and white residents. The image below shows the public whipping of a German doctor who had assaulted the Methodist missionary Rev. W. H. Cox. This incident happened in November 1914 two months after the Australian take over of German New Guinea.

Tensions between Germans and British at this time could also be attributed to Christian ideological differences and the missions' own competition and grabbing of real estate and congregation. Many Germans in Rabaul and New Ireland were part of the Roman Catholic Mission while the British were Methodists. So it seems that the Methodist church was also able to use the change over of regime to enlist the new military power for its own interests. This kind of religious tension between the "Popies" (derogatory term used in New Britain) and the Methodists went on in New Britain, until the independence of Papua New Guinea.

The natives themselves continued to be whipped or flogged as a matter of course. That was the general way the Australian masters related to the natives who were their labourers and domestic servants. 

Luluais and Tultuls

The Germans had developed a system of organisation and working together with the native authorities which the Australians seem not to have fully grasped. Perhaps they were too preoccupied or distracted by a myriad of factors, including their own effort of taking over properties seized from the German colonies or a lack of real faith in native authority probably arising from their own attitudes towards natives both at home and in the territories.

The Emergence of Secessionism, Nationalism and Micronationalism

There was a lot of political strife and active protests against Australian colonial administration in Rabaul in the 1960s and 70s which saw the formation and rise of the Mataungan Association and the popular movement for Independence.

On Bougainville there was a similar will of the people to secede. 

It seems plausible to assume that both people had experienced what it was like to be part of an alternative form of government with a certain ability of their people to participate economically. What else could have inspired them to want a return to the experience of self determination?

The lack of will by various peoples of the territories of Papua and New Guinea to live together as a common people under the Australian colonial administration became quite noticeable so that

"In 1970, the distinguished African political scientist, Ali Marzui was to charge Australia with having denied Papua New Guinea 'an infra-structure for nationhood'. This he felt was the greatest of all imperialist sins.

In many ways the British were humane, and in many ways the Australians have been humane. The British were exploitative, but the Australians were indifferent. There is only one thing worse than exploitative colonialism - and that is indifferent colonialism.

This was a wry perception of a system which had generally been seen as benign, which had brought in over A$1000 million in aid since World War II, and which the indigenous people themselves did not want to renounce too soon. Charges that Australia had failed to promote cultural homogenisation, economic interaction among indigenes and autochtonous institutions for conflict resolution could only ring true. However, following J. S. Mill, Marzui felt that among the forces generating nationhood

the strongest of all its political antecedents; the possession of national history and consequent community of recollections; collective pride and humiliation; pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past."

From the chapter: "The Emergence of Secessionism" of the book: "Papua New Guinea - A Political History" by James Griffin, Hank Nelson and Stewart Firth.

The Flip Side of Good, is Well Intended

In the present era of Papua New Guinea, arguably the best Aid Organistaion to have operated in Papua New Guinea was the German Development Service (GDS) which closed down its operations in 2004. GDS, which had a much smaller financial capablity than AUSAID, the biggest foreign aid organisation in PNG, concentrated its little resources on three programme areas: Agriculture, Technical/Vocational Training and in Civil Society Support. And there again in the modern era, the Germans out performed the Australian performance in terms of looking at the critical areas and combining its programmes and mature partnerships in a way where locals could quickly gain self confidence and self determination in the management of their own lives.

There was a common saying that one heard within the German Development Service:  "Die Kehrseite von gut, ist gut gemeint" - "The flip side of Good, is well Intended". And there again, that kind of thinking shows where the German programme had a more critical philosophical approach to its own sense of purpose. There it shows that if you are not actually prepared to get your hands dirty, but rather conceive to dictate colonial policy through the use of brutal force, or from a superior and condescending standpoint, that you may be denied your own claim to a clear measure of success and that history may judge your work merely, as a "well intended" effort.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Today, it is really up to Papua New Guineans themselves to see the difference between "good" and "well intended". Because here lies the danger of our individual and public neglect of our own responsibilities wherever we are. It may be well intended not to question corrupt practice because we may think that we should be polite to any of our leaders who abuse office and public trust. It may be well intended to advance a public programme that aims to give more power to our parliamentarians and seeks to censor and restrict the powers of our Ombudsman Commission. But at the end, choosing convenient political expediency over the painstaking approach towards establishing common consent in a proper democratic system can amount to a gross negligence of duty.

Perhaps taking the advice from J. S. Mill and Ali Marzui, Papua New Guineans should collectively reorganise to recognise the things we can be proud of and the things that have hurt and humiliated us and recognise the things we should also say sorry for, like what we have done on Bougainville. Have we faced our history on Bougainville properly? Have we apologised properly to our families on Bougainville? Are we able to move beyond it in a way that we can live with the right kind of acceptance for what happened there? What is the right way to deal with Bougainville properly according to our customs and traditions as Melanesians? Or should we just let the United Nations deal with it and deny our own people closure one again?

And what should we do about the Australian Underground which is the likely suspect of flooding our country with illegal firearms? Is anyone talking about that? Shouldn't we be asking our Bougainville brothers and sisters who gave them the guns that they fired at us? We can do that once we have performed the proper sorry rituals on Bougainville for our part in their pain and their part in our pain. And then shouldn't we ask the Australian people to help us police the Australian underground which we believe is still flooding our country with illegal fire arms?

It is important for any nation to have a proper perspective on its own history and where its people want to go as a nation. It is also important to separate the myths and fables of history from the real experience of a people. Papua New Guineans know as a people what they have gone through and what they have experienced. But they should start to make their common experience more explicit and clearly pronounced so that these can become proper milestones of history and stepping stones for future progress.

Papua New Guinea has no need to be troubled by fabled memories and accounts of history. The "Pax Australiana" is for the most part a fable in that there is no evidence of it and if it existed, it did not give Papua New Guinea a tangible practice during the colonial experience that could prepare us for a future as a united nation. Both Papua New Guinea and the new Bougainville have been burnt badly from what was a colonial experiment without proper institution. Perhaps now it is important to face things properly so that both people could find the space, where they could dust off their bruises and start walking with a renewed sense of pride and a definite self determination.

A curious footnote:

A friend from Australia Evelyn Hogan, whom I'd like to thank for verifying some errors and oversights in my article, which have led me to make a few amendments to the article after I had first published it, also pointed out to me, among other things the following:

"You could also follow up in the training of professionals.  I remember Jacob Simet saying his grandfather was trained as a journalist by the Germans in early 1900s.  A profession which was not made available by Australian admin until late 1960s". 

In view of numerous incidents like that in the experience of many Papua New Guineans, one does tend to wonder what was going on, in the intention of the Australian Colonial Administration.

Photographs and plates from: "A Pictorial History of Papua New Guinea" by Noel Gash and June Whittaker
- Published by Robert Brown and Associates, first Published in 1975 by The Jacaranda Press.


  1. A remarkable article showing the aftershocks of war. Bougainville being a thorny issue swept under the carpet.All of which leads me to believe that an autonomous East New Britain is in the offing.

  2. Kevin,
    Thank you. Sorry, I wasn't paying attention and missed your comment.
    Personally, I hope that East New Britain stays part of a bigger Papua New Guinea. The reason for this is that:
    1. One of Papua New Guineas blessings from its diversity is the way all our people are learning to adapt and to consider one another's rights and feelings before making decisions. If we work on this more we will be a greater country that we are already.
    2. It is easier for corruption to grow in smaller countries because there are fewer voices of disagreement and discontent to be silenced by anyone who want to exploit a country's systems for private gain.

    Papua New Guinea recognises itself more and more as being blessed by its diversity and more and more of us are treasuring that quality.