Papua New Guinea (PNG), like much of the world came into the main fold of recorded history through European discovery and colonialism, and only in recent history has it gained national independence.
The name Papua New Guinea is mostly a derivative of Nueva Guinea, from Spanish explorer Ynigo Ortiz de Retez. Retez had named the island “new Guinea” through seeing resemblance between the people there with other peoples living on African Guinea coast, with Guinea referring to the skin colour of the inhabitants. It is still uncertain where the “Papua” part of the name originated from. This blog will focus on the late colonial period, and independence of PNG.
Human habitation of PNG appear to have began c. 50,000 BC and was one of only a few separate areas where human domesticated plants for their agriculture; it appears that agriculture developed independent of culture and regional influences from elsewhere. The area seems to have enjoyed healthy trade with Southeast Asia c. 3000 BC, with a large import form the island being exotic bird plumage. During the 5th century BC, an Austronesian migration appeared to have occurred, bringing with them new forms of material culture such as new ceramic forms, and innovations including new Fishing techniques and technologies. The island was fist encountered by European civilisation during the 16th Century but the Portuguese explorer Dom Jorge de Menezes, and the Ynigo Ortiz de Retez of Spain.
From 1884, it seems the Island was colonised by three European powers; Germany controlled the Northern part of the Eastern half, Britain controlled the Southern part of the Eastern half, and the Netherlands East Indies owning the Western half. During the 1914, the first year of the WW1, Australia had overthrown German control of PNG, and were later awarded full control of the island after WW1 through a mandate by the League of Nations.
During WW2, PNG served as the stage for one of the major campaigns between the Japanese and Ally forces of Australia and America. The New Guinea Campaign (NGC) was fought between January 1942 and August 1945. The Japanese empire had invaded Australian controlled PNG as well the Western half still that was still controlled by the Dutch. The Allies, consisting of mostly Australian forces, managed to regain the island from Japanese control, while also regaining the Western half originally controlled by the Netherlands. The campaign was a disaster for the Japanese and resulted in severe losses – though most were not the result of conflict. A recurrent theme of pacific campaigns was the ever present threat of starvation through lack of food supplies, and disease. Many Japanese forces in the area never even came into contact with Australian forces and were instead besieged in military encampments that resulted in them being denied fresh food and medicine. It has been estimated that it was this form of attrition that took the lives of 97% of the Japanese deaths. However, this is not to say that the death toll was light for the allies, and several brutal battles and island campaigns occurred that took severe death tolls or both sides. In total, an estimated 216,000 died from the Japanese, Australian and U.S. forces. In the aftermath of the end of WW2 and the surrender of Japan that also ended the Pacific War, the territories of the island were combined to form the Territory of Papua and New Guinea – later to be known as Papua New Guinea.
In 1975, after appealing to the United Nations, PNG was granted independence from Australia on 16th September. PNG became part of the Commonwealth, and remains so today, sharing Queen Elizabeth II as its head of State. The country also enjoys a healthy relationship with Australia through trade, tourism and donations from Australia; Australia thus remains one of PNG’s most closest allies and is its largest donor in aid. Finally, to seal and confirm PNG as part of the international community, on 10th October 1975, it was admitted in the United Nations.
I hope this was an interesting read into Papua New Guinea establishment and successful story of independence. Check back next Week for the letter ‘Q’ in our A-Z of world history!