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Papua New Guinea, History

continued unrest, Indonesian army, Pleistocene Epoch, Portuguese explorers, plantation agriculture

The first settlers to Papua New Guinea migrated from Southeast Asia probably at least 40,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Epoch, or ice age. At that time the polar ice caps were larger than they are today, and with more water locked in the ice caps, the oceans were considerably shallower. Many of the present Indonesian islands were part of the Asian landmass, so there were fewer water barriers to human migration. New Guinea was attached to Australia and to Indonesia’s easternmost islands by a land bridge, although it was separated from Indonesia’s central islands by water. The earliest immigrants to New Guinea were few in number and were hunter-gatherers. About 5,000 years ago another wave of people migrated from Southeast Asia and settled along the northern coast of New Guinea and on the nearby islands. These newcomers lived in villages and raised pigs and chickens, made clay pots, and grew food crops such as taro and yams. The people who had come earlier gradually adopted these new ways.

Seafarers from China and the Malay empires arrived in the area long before Europeans first visited the islands in the 17th century. The Chinese and Southeast Asians brought goods for trade and took slaves from New Guinea. Portuguese explorers reported sighting the New Guinea coast as early as 1512, but it was not until 1526 that another Portuguese, Jorge de Meneses, landed on the island. Inigo Ortiz de Retes, the leader of a Spanish expedition that sailed near the island in 1545, named it New Guinea because he thought the islanders resembled those of Africa’s Guinea coast. During the next three centuries many foreigners landed along the coast but did not venture far inland for fear of catching malaria or being attacked by headhunters. In the 1870s European missionaries, miners, and traders began to settle the eastern New Guinea coast, and some pushed inland along the larger rivers.

Meanwhile, European powers were claiming land throughout Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the Australian continent for their empires. In 1828 Portugal annexed the western half of New Guinea (now the Indonesian province of Papua), and by 1829 Britain claimed the entire Australian continent. In the early 1880s the British colonial government in Queensland, across the Torres Strait, became alarmed by German commercial activity in New Guinea. Assuming an imminent German annexation of New Guinea land and fearing the security threat this posed, Queensland claimed southeastern New Guinea for the British crown in 1883. The British government in London did not immediately recognize the action, although pressure from its Australian and New Zealand colonies prompted Britain to formally establish a protectorate over southeastern New Guinea in 1884. A few days earlier Germany had claimed northeastern New Guinea, and in 1885 the British and German empires agreed upon the borders of British New Guinea and German New Guinea.

At first neither colonial empire was much concerned with New Guinea. Britain’s interests were primarily strategic, although a small community of miners developed after gold was discovered in the late 1880s. In 1901 Britain’s Australian colonies became states in the independent Commonwealth of Australia. The new nation assumed the administrative responsibility of British New Guinea, which was formally transferred to Australian jurisdiction in 1906 and renamed Papua. The Australian lieutenant governor pursued the sometimes-conflicting policies of exploiting Papua’s natural resources and improving the lives of the Papuans. However, because Australian subsidies were low, there was limited progress made with either initiative. Unlike in German New Guinea, plantation agriculture was slow to develop in Papua; this was in part because Australia protected its domestic produce market, which greatly hindered Papuan exports.

Initially, a German company was charged with administering German New Guinea. When the company’s plantations failed to make a profit, the German government assumed control of the colonial administration in 1899. Germany concerned itself primarily with improving the lives of the foreign settlers. Although the Germans introduced commercial plantations, created a small road network, and improved sanitation, the lives of the Papuans were either little improved or made harsher. At the beginning of World War I (1914-1918) an Australian military force occupied German New Guinea and remained there throughout the war. After Germany’s defeat, the League of Nations granted Australia a mandate to rule the German colony, which was renamed the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. Plantation agriculture expanded and the discovery of gold in the 1920s created a gold rush. The Australians extended the education system, but they were generally less concerned with native rights in the mandated territory than in Papua.

In 1942, during World War II, Japanese forces occupied the mandated territory and penetrated to within 56 km (35 mi) of Port Moresby. A United States and Australian counteroffensive drove the Japanese from Papua before the end of January 1943, but the war deeply affected the Papuans, who had been largely unaware of the outside world. During the war, they suffered the intrusions of more than 1 million foreign soldiers and the accompanying military equipment, and they witnessed terrible battles and devastation. One impact of the war period was the formation of cargo cults. Possession of Western goods—for example, the cargo from the war period—came to typify prosperity, but Papuans generally did not understand how the goods were produced. Cults developed around leaders who prophesized that their ancestors would bring material goods by plane or some other “magic” means. Some cults built landing strips, believing that planes would continue to arrive bringing cargo. Cargo cults typically disbanded when the prophesies were unrealized.

In 1946 the United Nations granted Australia a trusteeship over the Territory of New Guinea. Although Australia maintained separate statistics for New Guinea, it administered the territory and Papua as one. The two territories increasingly became known as Papua New Guinea, and the native people came to be called Papua New Guineans. The administration continued its efforts to further education and to develop the economy.

In order to prepare the territories for eventual autonomy and independence, the Australians sought to encourage democratic institutions. In 1951 a countrywide legislative council was created; it gave way in 1964 to a House of Assembly. On December 1, 1973, Papua and New Guinea became self-governing as Papua New Guinea. The country became fully independent on September 6, 1975.

The Australian administration had created a strong central government, which the new government inherited. This framework soon proved unsuitable, however, partly because most of the population was rural and had little interest in national affairs. Several strong regional separatist movements arose in the 1970s, of which the most significant was on Bougainville. From 1976 to 1978 the government decentralized the administration by establishing elected provincial governments with a degree of autonomy; this partially satisfied separatist demands. In 1988, however, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) formed to press the government for further changes. Landowners on Bougainville had received no compensation for copper mining that had occurred since 1972, and islanders were concerned about the environmental damage caused by the mining. Violence ensued as the BRA increasingly favored the secession of North Solomons Province (which includes Bougainville). Hundreds of people died as a direct consequence of the violence. Thousands more are believed to have died from hardships caused by an economic blockade, which resulted in suspension of essential services in areas controlled by the BRA. The government and BRA representatives periodically met to negotiate the crises, and in May 1998 the two sides signed a peace agreement.

In addition to continued unrest in Bougainville, since 1977 Papua New Guinea has also been affected by unrest in the neighboring Indonesian province of Papua (formerly Irian Jaya). Fighting occurred near the border area and many Papua New Guineans sympathized with the rebels, whose goal was to end Indonesian rule and unify the island. Thousands of people have since fled Papua for Papua New Guinea to escape reprisals by the Indonesian army. Although Papua New Guinea and Indonesia signed a border treaty in 1984 and a treaty of friendship and cooperation in 1986, their relations have remained strained.

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