Understanding Papua New Guinea

Puri Puri man at Tufi

Puri Puri man at Tufi

Papua New Guinea is one of the last frontiers – the country is a wild & adventurous place that offers tremendous scuba diving, combined with many unique & fascinating things to see above the water.

One of the world’s most heterogeneous countries, PNG has a population of around 6.5m people, but over 850 languages and nearly 1000 traditional societies & ethnic indigenous groups.

This tremendous diversity is the result of the country’s rugged, mountainous terrain whereby tribes & clans formed as a self-defense mechanism, leading to thousands of separate communities.

Low-level conflict between neighboring tribes was (and in many places still is) the norm, which meant that each tribe tended to limit itself to it’s defined area and resulted in the large number of traditional societies & languages.

Even today less than 20% of PNG’s population live in urban areas, with the remainder usually following a traditional village and subsistence farming based lifestyle – many without power or running water, and where “luxuries” such as soap, cooking oil & clothes are few & far between.

Ako Village in Orotoba Province

Ako Village in Orotoba Province

Located north of Australia, PNG occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, (the second largest island in the world), the Bismark & Louisade archipelagos, the Admiralty Islands, Bougainville Island and numerous other smaller islands in the Bismark & Solomon Seas.

Papua New Guinea Map

Map of Papua New Guinea showing the main regions

Understanding Papua New Guinea: A Brief History Lesson…

Papua New Guinea is believed to have been populated by humans for over 50,000 years, with the first inhabitants migrating there from other parts of South East Asia, and a major migration of Austronesian speaking people to the coastal regions of the country some 2,500 years ago.

Girl from Koje

Girl from Koje in Orotoba Province

European exploration of the island of New Guinea started in the 16th century, when the first sailing ships arrived in SE Asia in search of the source of the Spice Trade, but was limited to coastal areas as the mountainous hinterland was just too daunting for serious exploration.

The local Melanesian people were christened “Papuan” by the Spanish explorer Don Jorge de Meneses, the word being derived from the Malay version pepuah used to describe frizzy hair… and the Spanish explorer Yñigo Ortiz de Retez later christened the main island New Guinea (Nueva Guinea) after he noted a resemblance of the local people to those he had seen along the Guinea coast of Africa.

Colonial Map of New Guinea

Colonial Map of Papua New Guinea

Serious colonization of the country occurred in the 1880’s when the northern half of the country became German New Guinea, and the southern half became British New Guinea.

The Germans being motivated by the copra trade & coconut oil, while the British wanted to keep the Germans away from Australia…

British New Guinea became the Territory of Papua in 1906, when Britain ceded it’s administration to the newly independent Australia.

When WW1 started Australia moved quickly to invade & seize control of German New Guinea and was ultimately given formal control by the League of Nations in 1920.

Understanding Papua New Guinea: Australian Colonial Rule

Papua New Guinea by Sean Dorney

Sean Dorney’s “Papua New Guinea”

During WWII the Japanese invaded Rabaul in January 1942 as part of their South-East Asia campaign, and in response the territories of Papua and New Guinea were merged together in to a single entity and administered as a single colony by Australia.

After the war Australia remained in control of the country until full independence was granted in September 1975.

When visiting Papua New Guinea it’s very easy to get the impression that it was “happy days” all round during colonial rule and Australia ruled with great wisdom and generosity.

Indeed many older local people who experienced those times will tell you that it was much better back then… ‘gut taim bipo’ (good times before).

But the truth is that PNG was just not ready for independence in 1975 and many of the problems that plague the country to this day, can be traced back to the rushed nature of that transition point.

Here is the link to an excellent paper called “Why is Papua New Guinea so Hard to Govern“, given by the widely respected journalist Sean Dorney, to the Australian Institute of International Affairs in November 1999. The paper is 16 years old now, but it’s content is still relevant and very useful when trying to understand the complex (almost mystifying…) nature of Papua New Guinea.

Sean Dorney’s book Papua New Guinea – People, Politics and History since 1975 is also very good reading if you are looking for a deeper understanding of the very complex domestic issues effecting the country.

Next Page: First Contact and WWII