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Papua New Guinea - A short history of New Britain



As the European powers competed to expand their sources of commodities through colonial annexation the last frontier to be claimed was the mysterious island of New Guinea..


The Dutch


The Dutch claimed the area west of the 141st meridian in 1872. In 1883 Queensland claimed a protectorate over the southern portion of the Eastern half of the island but this was not ratified by the British government until the following year when the Germans claimed the northern part of the island. The German claim included all of the New Guinea Islands (still called the Bismark Archipelago), Micronesia, Palau parts of the Solomon Islands and Nauru.


The Germans


The Germans managed their colony in a corporate manner as the main asset of the German New Guinea Company (Deutsche Neuguinea Kompagnie) which was given a charter to not only exploit but also to rule. Their headquarters were for most of their occupation in Kokopo and then in nearby Rabaul.


The Australians


Australians debated the merits of becoming a colonial power at a time when its mistreatment of Aborigines as well as South Sea Islanders was still an issue of guilt for many. In the end the adjacent presence of an expansionist Germany solved the dilemma and Port Moresby was chosen to be the headquarters of  the Territory of Papua.


World Wars


Australian forces were first engaged in World War I when they fought a short but bitter fight for the control of the Bitapaka radio station, which is close to Rabaul.  Then the League of Nations handed administration to Australia as the Mandated Territory of Papua. 


The territories Papua and New Guinea followed parallel but different pathways of development until the invasion by Japan in 1942.  Many Papua New Guineans fought either as volunteer soldiers for the Allies or as carriers, stretcher bearers and as coast watchers. Many have never been formally recognized but the fate of Rabaul catechist Peter To Rot who was executed for refusing to give up his faith in carrying out his duties typified the actions of many Papua New Guineans. Peter To Rot was beatified in 1995 by Pope John Paul II. Read more about Peter To Rot here.




After WWII the emerging nation was administered as the Territory of Papua and New Guinea but very much as an extension of the country whose official immigration was the “White Australia Policy”. The late sixties saw a rush towards the inevitable independence and self government was granted in 1972 with (Sir) Michael Somare as Chief Minister.




Independence followed in 1975 where the newly appointed Governor General Sir John Guise at the lowering of the Australian flag famously said, “we are not tearing down this flag, we are handing it back”.




Since then the once vibrant agricultural sector has declined in importance and the country has rushed to develop it’s mineral and petroleum sectors. Much of this development has been done responsibly and Papua New Guinean technical specialists can be found managing this sector throughout the world.


The reality is however that most Papua New Guineans live on their customary land in their villages.  Agriculture is the future for meaningful development for them.  


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