Papua New Guinea 101… The country is well and truly one of the last frontiers. It has some tremendous scuba diving and many unique and fascinating things to see above the water.
A wild and adventurous place, it is one of the world’s most heterogeneous countries. With a population of around 7.8m people, but over 850 languages. And nearly 1000 traditional societies and ethnic indigenous groups.
This tremendous diversity is the result of the country’s rugged and mountainous terrain. Whereby tribes and clans formed as a self-defense mechanism – leading to thousands of separate communities.
Hence low-level conflict between neighboring tribes was (and often still is…) the norm. So each tribe tended to limit itself to its defined area.
With the end result being the large number of traditional societies and languages. Even today less than 20% of PNG’s population live in urban areas. The majority usually following a traditional village and subsistence farming based lifestyle. Many without power or running water. Where “luxuries” such as soap, cooking oil & clothes are few and far between.
Located north of Australia, PNG occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea (the second largest island in the world). Plus the Bismark & Louisade archipelagos, the Admiralty Islands, Bougainville Island. And numerous other smaller islands in the Bismark & Solomon Seas.
Papua New Guinea 101: A Brief History Lesson…
Papua New Guinea is believed to have been populated by humans for over 50,000 years. The first inhabitants migrating there from other parts of South East Asia. In addition to a major migration of Austronesian speaking people to the coastal regions of the country some 2,500 years ago.
European exploration of the island of New Guinea started in the 16th century. Those first sailing ships arrived in SE Asia in search of the source of the Spice Trade. But exploration 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 word “pepuah” – used to describe frizzy hair… 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.
Serious colonization of the area that now forms the country of Papua New Guinea started back in the 1880’s.
The northern half becoming German New Guinea. While the southern half became British New Guinea.
The Germans were motivated by the copra trade and coconut oil. While the British just wanted to keep the Germans away from Australia…
In 1906 British New Guinea became the Territory of Papua. When Britain ceded it’s administration to the newly independent Australia.
When WW1 started Australia moved quickly to invade and seize control of German New Guinea. Ultimately Australia was given formal control by the League of Nations in 1920.
Papua New Guinea 101: Australian Colonial Rule
During WWII the Japanese invaded Rabaul in January 1942. In response the territories of Papua and New Guinea were merged 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.
While visiting Papua New Guinea it’s very easy to get the impression that it was “happy days” all round during colonial rule. Australia would appear to have ruled with great wisdom and generosity.
As a result, many older local people who experienced those times will tell you that it was much better back then… ‘Gut taim bipo’ (good times before).
The truth is that PNG was just not ready for independence in 1975. Many of the problems that plague the country to this day, can be traced back to the rushed nature of that transition.
Here is the link to an excellent paper called “Why is Papua New Guinea so Hard to Govern“. The paper was given by the widely respected journalist Sean Dorney to the Australian Institute of International Affairs in November 1999.
While the paper is 21 years old now, it’s content is still relevant and very useful. Especially so when trying to understand the complex (almost mystifying…) nature of Papua New Guinea.
Furthermore Sean Dorney’s book Papua New Guinea – People, Politics and History since 1975 is also very good reading. Particularly if you are looking for a deeper understanding of the very complex domestic issues effecting the country.
Back To: Understanding Papua New Guinea